t is for thai-kun

Chive Cake

That’s right: Being double-vaxxed and with the CDC saying to let it all fly, we’re back in the A thru Z dining game! We left off with Suerte back in March of 2020 and pick it back up with Thai-Kun.

Thai-Kun comes sharply seasoned with recognition, the eighth-best new restaurant in the country in 2014 according to Bon Appetite (and this as a trailer), the 33rd best restaurant in Austin according to the Austin American-Statesman’s Matthew Odam, and the best authentic Thai food in Austin according to A Taste of Koko. A spin-off of Paul Qui’s East Side King, Thai-Kun’s menu is led by Thai Changthong, who hails from Bangkok, and Moto Utsunomiya. Thai-Kun started as a trailer over by Rainey Street and then expanded to brick and mortar in the Rock Rose area of The Domain in north Austin.

As long-time Austinites, we have mixed feelings about The Domain. My inner urban planner appreciates the mixed-use street vibes, but The Domain also has an over-controlled Disneyland feel about it, something that the preening fashionistas and suburbanites appreciate. The Domain recreates the urban experience without the urban experience. Where’s the non-sanctioned street art, the passed-out drunk from last night’s rut, and the homeless dude pissing in the alley?

Jumping from a food trailer in an authentic downtown into a storefront here is quite the leap, especially with food that can peel the paint off a roadgrader. But it somehow works: the space is hip, open, and airy with a pleasant outdoor sidepatio. The mixed drinks are first rate. I imbibed a Pink Sands Rita (pineapple- and blackberry-infused Azuna Blanco Tequila with thai chili infused lime juice; $13) that was tastefully understated with a wee afterburn while The Bride ordered a Thai-Kun TKO (Crusoe Organic Spiced Rum, Paula’s Texas Orange, turmeric syrup, pineapple, and lemon; $12), which was also properly balanced and required restraint.

The staff are friendly and warn you away from poor decisions. For example, Thai-Kun is infamous for several of its authentically tongue-destroying dishes, something Changthong refers to as O.G. (Original Grandma) Thai. And he does not compromise: you get it as you would get it from a street-vendor in Bangkok. A friend of ours who adores Thai food said it was the hottest and most uncomfortable food he had ever eaten. When we tried to order the Papaya (green papaya, thai chili, green bean, peanuts, grape tomato, sticky rice; $9) as an appetizer, our waitress politely warned us that it was hot and that even she couldn’t handle it. “How hot?” I asked, feeling the burn. “Hotter than a habanero.”

Successfully shoo’d away from the evils of papaya, we ordered the Chive Cake (steamed and pan seared with serrano nam jim; $8), a beautiful dish made of Chinese chives and rice-tapioca flour with a crunchy soft texture served with a deep, flavorful sauce that offered a pleasantly mild burn, just enough to activate the endorphins.

Thai-Kun recommends that diners eat dishes family style since the dishes come out as soon they are prepared, and so we did, following the Chive Cake with the fish special, a red snapper with chili tamarind sauce ($70). The fish comes whole, battered and fried, and adorned with an aromatic medley of onions, peppers, and basil. Someone walking onto the patio stopped, gawked, and announced “That looks amazing!” And so it was: The delicate flakes of fish with sauce-soaked batter ladled with caramelized onions and peppers plucked with fresh scallions and basil on jasmine rice left us picking the bones like starving alley cats.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t realize how much that fish dish cost until just now when I looked at the bill (that’s right: $70!). Given that standard menu items range from 15 to 20 bucks and the price wasn’t shared up front, the resulting bill could induce sticker shock to the unsuspecting pescatarian. It also makes it harder to overlook the sizable chip in the plate, a serving faux pas (I guess you can take the food off of the street, but you can’t take the street out of the food…). Admittedly, the dish could have been shared by four people instead of two, bringing the price per head down to a more comparable level, but that cost could leave people of lesser means feeling taken advantage of if not forewarned. It seems like there’s maybe a rule of thumb for specials to not exceed a certain amount of the standard fare? Twice the normal entree, perhaps, instead of 3.5 to 4.7 times?

Not aware of the size of the catch-of-the-day, we also ordered the Thai-Kun Fried Chicken (fried chicken thigh, cucumber, boom sauce, and jasmine rice; $15). The chicken was nicely fried, with a crunchy, bready crust with not enough boom sauce. Coming after the fish dish, it was good, but paled in comparison.

All in all a good place, although it’s disappointing to not be able to choose your pain. Based on the dishes we had (and the ones we were herded away from), the heat only comes in two levels: Queen of England’s tea and crumpets or grisly Hong Kong street fighter. It’s a drag to not be able to sample key dishes because they’d ruin your life. I like pain, but there’s more to flavor than pain. I’ve often wondered why restaurants that sling spicy don’t provide a sampling spectrum of spice levels (The Platter of Pain) for folks to choose their poison. For Thai-Kun, it’s either pleasure or pain, so choose carefully.

web&where: interwebs; 11601 Rock Rose Avenue; (512) 719-3332
what’s the deal? authentic Thai; table service
overall: *** (food***; drink****; atmosphere***; service**; instagrammability****)
cost: $$$ (as long as you stay away from the specials)

our scale:
–          meh [think twice]
*         OK [it’ll get the job done]
**       good [solid neighborhood joint]
***     damn good [we’ll definitely be back]
****   yippity-yikes that was amazeballs [fantastic; one of the best]
***** holy sh!t [transcendental; best of the best] each $ = $10; cost is based on a typical dinner entrée and appetizer (no drinks)

each $ = $10; cost is based on a typical dinner entrée and appetizer (no drinks)

red snapper with chili tamarind sauce
the Pink Sands Rita and the Thai-Kun TKO
Thai-Kun Fried Chicken

red snapper with chili tamarind sauce
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