Restaurant Review: Krua Urban Thai
South Lamar restaurant offers bold flavors and mixed emotions
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., Jan. 26, 2018
Mon.-Thu., 11am-3pm, 5-10pm; Fri., 11am-3pm, 5-11pm; Sat., 5-11pm Sun., 5-10pm
Austin is home to more than 50 Thai restaurants. After living in a city with only two (neither particularly remarkable, in hindsight), I am fully aware of how cool this is for diners, and how difficult it is for restaurateurs. In order to stand out around here, a new spot serving this beloved cuisine must offer a menu that balances classic favorites – pad thai, curry, and yes, even fried rice – with unique twists. Krua Urban Thai, from owner/chef Sam Sampaotong, finds itself adrift in the middle of that ocean of options. The flavors are there, but some operational details might discourage patrons from putting Krua into their Thai food rotation before they even take a bite.
Thai food, with its complex flavor profiles and prominent use of herbs and spices, vegetables, and lean proteins, is nourishing, comforting, and most of the dishes make excellent takeout options. So on a recent rainy, cold Friday night, I ordered several items to go. Quite a few people had the same game plan, and around 7pm when I called, the noise level was high and, as it turned out, impaired the ordering process. (I'll note here, that even as of last week, Krua's website was sorely out of date, with incorrect hours, and a confusingly inaccurate menu. The restaurant opened in October. It has, as of this week, been mostly updated.) Developing daily specials and seasonal menus is certainly a mark of culinary creativity, and it's nearly impossible to consistently keep that current online, but it's nice to know what to expect when you're expecting "Authentic Thai," as their slogan claims. That, or throw a disclaimer in there.
Based on the menu available, I ordered steamed dumplings ($7), crab fried rice $16), a cup of the tom yum koong with two jumbo shrimp ($5.50), and gang dang curry with chicken ($16). The person I spoke with explained that the gang dang that evening was not available with chicken, but instead with duck leg. I confirmed that all the other ingredients were the same, and proceeded.
The small South Lamar space – formerly the original Barley Swine – was packed to the gills and the staff was bustling. An open kitchen runs along the south wall, and features a wooden bar top and seating, accented with lovely baskets of fresh lemongrass and other produce, with garlic and dried chiles suspended, and shelves of Asian beers; a smaller wine bar section with high tables completes that sightline. The north side is lined with two- and four-top tables and a wooden bench that runs the length of the room. The ambience is close-quarters but cozy, and, complete with a Welcome to Texas sign, it's a pleasant place. The parking situation is a mini-beast, but then, welcome to Austin circa 2018.
After the 25-minute drive home, I sat down to eat. The ground chicken and shrimp dumplings were tasty, though fairly standard-issue, and the jasmine rice with jumbo lump crab was just fine, though I've certainly had comparable dishes in town for several dollars less. The lemongrass soup was perhaps the cleanest, most gentle version of this dish I've had: perfectly cooked shrimp, and thankfully, no floating layer of grease. (Bumping up the lemongrass and herbs to pack more flavor would be advised, though.)
Having saved what I hoped would be the best for last, after one bite I realized the curry contained my Kryptonite: pineapple. (It also had surprise potatoes, but that's irrelevant.) Food allergies are no joke, and though perhaps I should have been more thorough in going through the individual ingredient list with the person on the phone when I realized the protein had been altered and the communication was hindered, I ordered a dish that historically contains no pineapple, and consequently, no potential anaphylaxis. It's a dish I've made at home countless times, and one I've ordered in countless restaurants. I have never, ever had it served with pineapple. Long story short, I'm obviously still alive, but I cannot speak to the dish's flavor or quality. What a bummer.
Referring back to my original sentiment, I'm absolutely all for putting a new spin on traditional fare, but claiming authenticity imparts a certain amount of responsibility to stay true and highlight edits. And in a world of fallibility, I'll make clear that this discrepancy is certainly not necessarily a dig on Krua. Still, combined with a higher price point than most competitors (nearly comparable to Sway), and their scrambled efforts to gain footing after several months being open, it's only making their attempt to claim a sustainable stake in the ground that much more difficult.
After mulling over the turn of events, and reminding myself that I've been navigating this restaurant scene successfully for 11 years (with hardly an EpiPen incident to be recalled), I revisited the following Monday for lunch. At 1pm, I was the only diner in the restaurant. I made my allergy abundantly clear to the server – thank you, kind human – reiterating that pineapple could not be a surprise dining companion, and when I later explained the prior situation to the on-duty manager, she graciously offered a gift card for the cost. Hopefully it's a lesson for us all.
The cheese rolls appetizer (two for $3) – cream cheese with mushrooms and onions wrapped in rice paper and deep fried, served with cilantro aïoli – was prepared perfectly with a delightfully crispy, not at all greasy, exterior and a creamy, warm, savory center. Service was quick and efficient, and after my lunch portion of the spicy noodle dish – seemingly, their pad see ew – with chicken ($10) arrived, I found what I'd been looking for the whole time. Plentiful, with an ideal amount of heat and a well-balanced brown sauce, all of the ingredients – broccoli, egg, bell peppers, jalapeños, onions, grape tomatoes, and large pieces of aromatic fresh basil – were cooked perfectly. Every bite had me nodding my head, very pleased I returned. This dish is worth a drive across town, and it reignited my excitement for other dishes at Krua (hold the pineapple). I've already recommended it to several friends.
I'm unsure why Sampaotong, who hails from several five-star hotel restaurants and also owns the Aroi Thai Cuisine trailer located on Highway 290, and his crew have had unsteadiness in some of the details, but I sincerely hope that more patrons will visit this spot and give them a chance to work out the kinks and show off the cooking chops that are clearly in place.
Krua Urban Thai2024 S. Lamar; 512/296-2458
Mon.-Thu., 11am-3pm, 5-10pm; Fri., 11am-3pm, 5-11pm; Sat., 5-11pm