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Grilled marinated pork collar, northeastern Thai-style steak salad and deep-fried sour-cured pork ribs from Kin Kao.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

1.5 out of 4 stars

Kin Kao
903 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, British Columbia
Shared plates, $8 to $14
Rating System
Additional Info
Open Tues. to Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. No reservations. Take-out available.

Kin Kao, on the surface, is very enticing. The small Commercial Drive restaurant that opened in February is cute and welcoming.

The minimalist room, with its pale beechwood tables and bright shots of delft blue, is pleasing to the eye. The draft craft beer selection (Strange Fellow and Three Acres) is on-point with local trends. The service is friendly and extremely attentive.

Its first-time restaurant owners, chef Tang Phoonchai and Terrence Feng, have a heartwarming story. Who wouldn't admire the chutzpah of two close friends who decided to leave the fields of furniture and finance to follow their foodie dreams?

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But then comes the question of authenticity. Everyone writing about this restaurant, online and otherwise, keeps tossing that hot-potato word around. What does it really mean? Is the food here supposed to be authentic because a few of the dishes hailing from northern Thailand are not commonly found in Vancouver? Does the fact that Mr. Phoonchai learned how to cook at his grandmother's elbow make his food mystically appetizing?

Let's get real. Thai food in Canada is never going to taste exactly like Thai food in Thailand. Several key factors preclude authenticity. Most restaurants, for example, cannot cook with charcoal. Certain ingredients such as seasonal holy basil are largely unavailable. Health inspectors would never allow outdoor fermentation.

The latter is the problem with Kin Kao's deep-fried sour-cured pork ribs. Although not battered or sticky – which makes them novel, relatively speaking – this chewy sweet-and-sour finger food lacks the Thai-defining funkiness of wild yeast flavours that would occur naturally if the chef had fermented the meat outside overnight.

The northeastern Thai-style steak salad has bright freshness from its dressing of lemongrass, shallots, mint and cilantro. But the limp beef tastes like it has been boiled. Even without charcoal, it's not all that difficult to achieve crisp char and smoky flavour. Try a blowtorch or cast-iron pan.

Grilled marinated pork collar, marinated in palm sugar, oyster and fish sauces, also falls flat with its minimal char and smoke. That said, the jaew dipping sauce served on the side does have a very good balance of fermented fish, garlic, chili and shallots.

If only that elusive cohesiveness were evident in other dishes. Ingredients and texture are two essential components in Thai cuisine that sometimes cannot be controlled. But a third pillar – seasoning – lies squarely in the hands of the chef.

Thai cooking is a delicate balance of sweet, sour, hot and salty tastes, all working in concert to round, contrast and support each other. There is a word for it – rot chart, meaning proper taste.

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"Balance is paramount," renowned chef David Thompson writes in Thai Cooking. "If the principle of European cooking is 'keep it simple,' then the Thai dictum is 'keep it balanced.'"

It takes time, practice and constant refining to achieve that proper balance – a little more palm sugar here to mellow the lime, a dash of salty fish sauce there to perfume the lemongrass. The need to taste, taste and taste again is relentless and sometimes maddening, yet oh-so-rewarding when it all clicks into place and that elegant symphony of flavour is finally achieved.

Sure, the definition of "proper balance" varies slightly among regions and according to personal preferences. But there is an undeniable common ground. The ingredients used in Thai cooking are so robust and often harsh – garlic, shrimp paste, bird's eye chili – that when not finely tuned, the flavours clang in discordance or simply fall flat.

Such is the problem with Kin Kao's papaya salad. Let's not quibble about the papaya, which has not been pounded. It rarely is in these parts. If it had been, the spicy dressing would have seeped into the otherwise tasteless, green fibrous flesh and perhaps made it taste less wooden. Or perhaps not, because that spicy dressing is completely out of whack. It's murky (from too much fish sauce) and has a one-note fire-engine burn (not enough sweet or sour to balance the chili.).

Green curry chicken errs on the funky side with its nose-wrinkling assault of fish sauce and bamboo. Some Thai dishes smell like dirty socks, but taste delicious thanks to their rot chart. This curry smells and tastes like a hockey locker room.

Thai coconut galangal mushroom soup is sweetly bland with not enough sour, no discernible heat and barely a whiff of galangal.

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Don't be fooled by appearances. Kin Kao is palatable, but by no means memorable.

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