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Three months ago, Kley and I decided rather spontaneously to have dinner at Kin Kao, a Thai restaurant we knew had been routinely filling its spartan 25-seat Commercial Drive space since opening in 2015. There was no particular reason for our having passed it by for so long — some restaurants, no matter how grand their reputation, simply fail again and again to place first among an evening’s list of contenders.
In a short Instagram review of our experience, I remarked that we felt ridiculous for having denied ourselves the pleasure of eating there for so long. But as much as we loved the food we were served — which we did a great, great deal — what lingered equally in our memories was the overwhelming kindness with which we were treated, from my being unhesitatingly seated before Kley arrived to the engaged, unhurried conversations with our server, Anna, about, among other things, their compact but wonderful selection of B.C. natural wines. (Kley found his introduction to the likes of Scout Vineyard and A Sunday in August so transporting, his prior self, which was perfectly happy drinking any $10 bottle of mass-produced plonk, had died before the cheque arrived.)
In the interest of fairness, we entered the new Kin Kao Song* this past weekend with modest expectations — not because we weren’t expecting whoever was in the kitchen to match the standards of its original sister restaurant, but because it was only the fourth night of service, and it isn’t uncommon for the most experienced restaurateurs to require weeks or months for a new venture to find its rhythm.
The masses, however, had no interest in letting Kin Kao Song ease into its debut. The room — much larger than Kin Kao’s, but sharing a similar aesthetic collision of industrial workspace and Brooklyn garage sale — was full when we arrived, and seemed somehow more full when we left. An assertive but not obnoxious bass-heavy playlist matched the energy of plates zipping by the dozens from kitchen pass to server to table. It was a scene, but a civilized and convivial scene that we were happy to join.
Speaking of servers, here was Anna again, having relocated full-time to this outpost and taking full control of the wine program, which remains 100 percent natural but now spans from the Okanagan to France to Slovakia. I, tragically, was driving, but took consolation in Jasmine Dream, one of several non-alcoholic drinks here that isn’t a veiled “Up yours” to teetotalers. Kley, meanwhile, made fast friends with the Kalamansi Old Fashioned: true to its name, the titular classic whiskey cocktail dosed with kalamansi reduction as well as floral bitters — like all the liquids here, a thoughtful complement to the food.
And so to the food. It was explained to us (thank you again, Anna!) that the menu here — unlike at Kin Kao, which is much longer and hews closely to classic Thai stir-fries and curries — was borne out of the freewheeling, semi-improvised staff meals that founding chef Tang Phooncha and his crew would make before service. Consequently, while the flavours and aromas at Kin Kao Song are unmistakably Thai, they arrive in forms you likely haven’t seen before. What the menu calls shrimp toast is in fact white bread spread with shrimp paste and given an egg wash before being deep fried to an addictive crunch; a side of “achat” pickled vegetables counters its richness in the way that acidic condiments always do so marvellously in Thai cuisine.
Jaew, a masterfully complex chili dipping sauce made with toasted rice powder, plays a similar contrasting role alongside thin slices of delicious pork jowl, and those achat pickles return to brighten the smoky depth of a trio of beef satay and their accompanying peanut sauce. To the great surprise of these two insatiable carnivores, our mutual favourite was a vegan pomelo salad in which the little-seen Southeast Asian citrus fruit is tossed with crispy shallot and shredded coconut (plus optional tiger prawns) for the cumulative effect of a very good ceviche — light yet substantial, savoury and sweet, a starter that wouldn’t disappoint as a meal on its own. We both would come back just for this.
Kin Kao Song’s current menu will change at the end of winter, but chef’s specials, new wine selections and more will arrive at regular intervals. This long-in-coming restaurant (yet another sufferer of pandemic-related delays and staffing shortages) has achieved the remarkable feat of already feeling confident and lived-in after less than a week. We can’t imagine what they’ll be capable of in a few months’ time, but we won’t be six years late in finding out.
*(“Kin Kao” is the literal Thai translation of “eat rice,” although it’s also a greeting that roughly means “Have you eaten?” “Song” means “two.”)
(Photo: Kley Klemens)