Khao San Road
Khao San Road, Bangkok's infamous backpacker ghetto, isn't what I immediately think of when I'm jonesin' for an authentic taste of Thailand. The neighbourhood has long been a pit stop for shoestring travellers following the banana pancake trail through Asia-- a rabbit warren of hostels and expat bars full of farang looking for a cheap place to doss down, some cheap thrills and maybe a pizza slice or two to curb their hunger and homesickness. It never really endeared itself to me when I visited.
Set in the bustle (or not, should you appear at 6pm on a Thursday) of the Entertainment District I assumed Jeff and Nuit Regular, (Sukhothai's proprietors and the first-couple of textbook northern Thai cuisine) chose to name their new west end canteen after the touristiest icon of the smiling kingdom as an ironic comment. Turns out the joke was on me since their motivation was as sincere and genuine as their trademark hospitality:
"We chose Khao San Road for a couple reasons." Jeff tells me. "One being that it's simply the gateway to Thailand for travelers. There is more than just the traditional experience to Thailand. Most restaurants like to capture the traditional feel with the buddhas and silks, which is beautiful in every sense, but we wanted to give a different glimpse of a real part of Thailand which is a travelers / backpackers perspective. We want to have more of a "restaurant in Thailand" feel rather than a "Thai restaurant in Canada" feel.
True to Jeff's word, there's not a Buddha in the joint. Khao San Road skips Thai restaurant vernacular, speaking instead with a much more west-end accent in subdued earth tones and the occasional wooden inflection (dark for floors and distressed for tables), while a rotation of paintings from local artists adorns the far wall. It feels very urban loft and not out of place for the neighbourhood.
The flood of nightly patronage is a big part of the reason why the restaurant doesn't currently accept phone reservations (and you should show up in person to order take out for that matter). Even at 6:30 on a Thursday you'll be placing your Singha ($6) down on the bar between sips while you wait for your table. That's right, unlike Sukhothai, Khao San Road is licensed which is a nice touch since I rather enjoy a beer with my pad thai or curry.
Anyone familiar at all with the card at Sukhothai will immediately recognize the signature depth of flavour that accompanies the curries at KSR. Generally not a fan of green curry (I find most versions in town unrefined, overcompensating with heat to mask a lack of flavour), Nuit's is something special I'd gladly cross town for ($12 with a side of steamed rice). Generous chunks of chicken, crunchy green bell pepper and bamboo shoot ribbons are bathed in a creamy sauce rich with coconut notes giving way to a mix of kafir lime leaf smoky chili, galangal, and lemongrass. Each taste just different enough from the last to keep your palate thoroughly entertained.
The mellower, yellow Massaman curry ($13 with a side of steamed rice) is equally complex and adds potatoes and, in our case chicken, for a thai take on stew sure to warm the winteriest of hearts. A similar creamy curry backbones the addictive broth bathing the chewy egg noodles of our chicken khao soi.
The minced beef with basil and a fried egg (Pad Gra Prao, $13) would be a welcome addition to any brunch. And the only thing missing from the street style pad thai ($13) is the ketchup since Nuit's real-deal version is the identical to what you'd find at hawker stalls and night markets from Chiang Mai to Koh Samui. Our perfectly cooked rice noodles are stir-fried in the traditional tamarind, fish sauce, chilli and palm sugar dressing topped and with chicken, scrambled egg, sprouts and green onion. Sweet, sour, spicy, salty and definitely tastier than the sum of its parts.
Jeff informs me that Nuit likes including one or two things on the menu that are classic Thai but aren't readily available anywhere in the city. In KSR's case it's the insanely addictive Gra Bong squash fritters ($7). A cousin of the pakora that's sweet from the squash and spicy from a hit of red curry paste in the batter. It's crunchy deep-fried goodness and I can barely restrain the smile since eating these fritters is like discovering a new continent. Served with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce (made from scratch) a bucket of these would be the perfect accompaniment to beer and beach.
My belly full of some amazing, authentic thai cuisine, I still can't quite reconcile KSR's seemingly contradictory nature, so I'll leave Jeff to have the last word on the subject:
"[We] Also chose that name because I always thought that if I was walking down the street in Toronto and I (having travelled in Thailand) saw that name, regardless of if I loved the street or not, I would absolutely have to check it out! It would just bring back all my memories of Thailand and traveling there. Not just Khao San Road, but the whole experience. And more often than not, people have very fond memories. Its a place that kind of honors travellers with just the name alone."
Photos courtesy Aislinn Smith