It's very tempting to be contrarian when discussing Paul Qui. An Ascot milliner might accuse him of ostentation, so feathered is his cap. The most recent is a nod from Bon Appétit, allowing Thai-Kun as the sole trailer parked in their list of "America's 10 Best New Restaurants." Nearby trucks, some far from being culinary lightweights, must be weeping like Antonio Salieri.
Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that Qui is one of the reasons why Austin food continues to be relevant. The long lines at Thai-Kun are not just an indication of buzz, but also a testament to quality. It would be churlish to add a sad trombone to the hallelujah chorus.
A shoot off the ever-growing East Side King bramble, Thai-Kun is a showcase for chef Thai Changthong's sure palate. Along with Kin and Comfort's Ek Timrerk, the other half of the lamented Spin Modern Thai, he is one of the Austin chefs most likely to snatch the Qui crown. It's not every day that food manages to be both authentic and adventurous, but Changthong's food has never been everyday.
Take the grilled bread with peanut curry ($4). The base flavor is familiar to anyone who has ever dipped a spring roll. Substituting an Easy Tiger baguette, however, knocks the experience off balance. The crispness transforms textural expectations. The sauce suddenly becomes something to be sopped. Similarly, Cabbage Two Ways ($5) – that's both fried and raw – takes the spring roll's supporting players (mint, cilantro, cucumber) and stars them in a salad. Both dishes are steeped in tradition, but refuse to cower to the argument that authentic should mean same.
That's not to say the menu (from Changthong, Qui, and Moto Utsunomiya) is about novelty, but to suggest it has something new to say about vernacular cuisine. Perhaps fittingly, Thai-Kun's best dishes are those most confident with that famous Thai spice. Heat can be tricky, reducing complexity to embers. But not at Thai-Kun. The hottest dish, beef Panang curry ($8) astounds with its balance. Even the protein, usually a disguised afterthought, peeks through. The suggested fried egg ($1) gives it a little extra dazzle. The Waterfall Pork ($8) likewise walks a tightrope. It is simultaneously fiery, unctuous, piquant, and earthy – avoiding the flatness that plagues many competitive Tiger Cry dishes.
More sensitive tongues will no doubt appreciate the black noodles ($7), a dish that flirts but never succumbs to treacle. Both the excellent fried dishes, the fish cakes ($6) and the fried chicken ($8) pull off the neat trick of ESK's karaage – providing all the fatty richness of frying without the glut.
Such imaginative cooking, however, deserves an equally beautiful home. The truck, decorated with Peelander-Yellow graffiti, is dynamic enough. But there is a feeling of impermanence in Wonderland's yard, and the preponderance of dusty black does not lend itself to relish. Though the convenient craft cocktails are welcome, Changthong's dishes beg to be paired. But until he is granted full Michael Hsu architecture, we'll continue to sit on picnic benches and play at being a somm. And we'll gladly give another high five to the co-owner. With only the slightest hint of a grumble.
Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.