REMEMBER—right around the time Carrie Bradshaw introduced Americans to the très sophisticated Cosmopolitan—when chicken pad thai was the height of Thai exotica? And as sure as we fantasized about Jimmy Choos, we cracked wooden chopsticks at places with names like Bow Thai, Thai Me Up, and Thai-rific.
That time is what I call "Before Pok Pok" (or BPP). We're certainly well into Thai Food 2.0—thank goodness for that—and really, we're starting to stretch into an even newer era with the likes of the ambitious Lang Baan, which is elevating the cuisine with ancient recipes and a fastidious attention to detail.
So where does that leave Khao San Thai Street Food, which opened this summer in the Pearl? It's not exactly a Thai-nosaur (expect more puns!), but it's also cashing in on the night-market-meets-Main-Street craze after it's been a thing for a while.
It starts with a somewhat manufactured atmosphere. The servers are forced to wear these neon safety vests. (Get it? It's street food!) Perhaps it's this demoralizing garment that led to service issues each visit, with one dish lagging until others were entirely done, and drink orders being forgotten and all but left for dead after our meal was over. There's also a three-wheeled tuk-tuk parked right in the middle of the large open space, with a table tucked inside. But the kids—oh lawd—the kids are in Thai heaven in this thing, yanking the front wheel and punching each other for a shot at the driver's seat. (It's a driving style not so different from Bangkok, when you think about it.)
That being said, there are some genuinely nice touches, like the "food cart" built into the prep line, where cooks grill up items like the tender and tasty ping pork ($9), marinated in evaporated milk and served hanging on skewers, dripping meat juice into its chili lime dipping sauce.
You can also tell owners Pounong and Sumitar Saysouriyosack are pursuing a dream here: They sold two suburban restaurants to open Khao San, named after a Bangkok backpacker district. Perhaps that's why, among the approachable classics like a well-executed khao pad puu blue crab fried rice ($9) or the khao san holy basil ($9), minced chicken with basil, rice, and a fried egg, you'll find a few items that push your taste buds into new places. Shrimp are served proudly head on. A smaller plate format allows those still in the Thai Me Up days to sample new fare along with the security of peanut noodles. It also allows you to eat a bounty and down a few drinks, while getting out for less than $50 for two—a boon in that chi-chi area.
Leave the flavorless summer rolls behind and start with the hoy joh ($5), pork, shrimp, crab, and water chestnuts stuffed into an inari-like bean curd, then deep-fried and served with a house-made sweet and sour sauce. On one trip, two of us ordered six dishes and we still had to split the last ball in half, slathering it in the sticky sauce and savoring the dense filling inside the chewy skin.
Khao San doesn't back down from a bit of spice, either. A pumpkin curry chicken is well priced at $8, with Draper Valley chicken and moist hunks of orange gourd that cool the tongue after the kicked-up coconut milk curry. Yet it's the slow burn of the pad char pla ($8) that sold me on the whole restaurant: catfish coated in rice flour and deep-fried, creating a light but crispy exterior that gives way to a perfectly moist inside. Even sitting in a hot bath of chili and evaporated milk, it retained its integrity, standing up alongside apple eggplant, green beans, and wild ginger. It outspiced my dining companion, but I washed it all down with one of the cooler tidbits from the drink menu: custom-brewed beers from Ashland's Caldera Brewing. They've crafted a ginger-infused brew and a rice lager; both are light and refreshing with the heat.
It's the Pearl, so high rents force an entrepreneur to play it safe to make sure they en-Thai-ce the masses and meet their margins. You'll do best to do just the opposite.
Lunch Mon-Fri 11 am-3 pm; dinner Mon-Thurs 3-10 pm, Fri 3 pm-midnight, Sat noon-midnight, Sun noon-10 pm. Full bar and some sidewalk seating (must love dogs). Kid tested, mother approved.