Refuel: Kin Khao
Abbey Lane, Althlone, Co. Westmeath
A few years back, when I was working on Corrigan Knows Food for RTE, I took the notion that we should find out what Ireland's favourite food was.
To drum up enthusiasm for a public vote, we filmed celebrities telling us what they most love to eat. For days I hung around the canteen at Montrose like a bad smell. I door-stepped newscasters, ambushed the cast of Fair City and hounded every has-been and wannabe never to be mentioned in the RTE Guide.
Is Ireland's favourite food bacon and cabbage? we asked. Or shepherd's pie? It was put to a public vote. You can't imagine our surprise when it transpired that the plain people of Ireland's favourite food was ... Thai green curry! Who wudda thunk it?
Of course now, with the benefit of hindsight, when I think back on the Noughties I'm reminded of how Irish eating habits were defined by driving to the suburbs on a Saturday night and paying hand over fist for (con)fusion cuisine served on a square plate by people of any and every nationality -- except Siamese. And so in light of the nation's rampant appetite for Thai food, it seemed fitting that I should end the decade with a trip to Kin Khao, reputedly one of the few authentic Thai restaurants around.
My companion, The Cartoonist, pleaded ignorance about Thai food, and was visibly overwhelmed by Kin Khao's rambling menu. It's a recurrent problem with ethnic restaurants: the fear of having a short menu, when a diminutive one will do. Who needs two dozen starters? We didn't have enough fingers and toes between us to count the main courses -- could it really, truly, have been 50?
Here's something I've learned from studying restaurant menus: too much choice can lead to indecision, indecision causes confusion, confusion creates panic, panic impairs your judgement, poor judgment is what makes you choose the wrong thing in a restaurant. I took control and decided we'd be sharing the "taster plate": a cross section that included tom kha soup, rice paper spring rolls, prawn cakes and duck salad. What we got was a "combination" plate: deep-fried spring rolls, deep-fried wontons, deep-fried prawn toast, satay chicken and pork ribs dripping with sweet and sour sauce. The Cartoonist was delighted, so I just put up with it.
If you like this sort of thing, Kin Khao do it pretty well. The wontons were light and crisp, there was evidence of fresh coriander and basil in the spring rolls, the satay sauce was good. But this isn't what Thai people eat for their dinner -- if it was, they would be shaped like Irish people. Better to keep the deep fat fryer at a slender arm's length, and proceed directly to Kin Khao's soup menu for tom kha or tom yum -- exotic, fragrant broths, where typical Thai flavours of lemongrass, galangal, lime and coriander simmer to the fore.
Moving on to the main course ... Ho Mok Gai, despite the dull translation of "steamed chicken curry", was superb. The chicken was exceptionally tender and infused with spice, the heat of the chillis was subdued by coconut milk and there was a perfumed element also. For this dish, I would gladly return to Kin Khao. Alas, I had chosen another dish: sauteed strips of beef, served with peppers and pak choi and a rather flat tasting peanut sauce. A decent enough dish, but not in the same league as the remarkable Ho Mok Gai.
For dessert, The Cartoonist went back to the fryer and had banana fritters in coconut batter. I tried one, and was chastened. To eat five of them, however, would be gluttony beyond the bounds of greed. But don't let that encourage you to try the sweet rice pudding -- a horrid sort of flummery normally reserved for consumption by the very young, the very old, or the very misfortunate.
Kin Khao certainly has more charm and is more convincing that many so-called Thai restaurants I've been to. That said, for a local restaurant, I found the service slightly indifferent, the prices need to be revised downwards by 10 per cent and the menu edited. Times have changed and if it doesn't change with them, Kin Khao may find itself falling, quite literally, out of flavour.