What's the "It" food of the moment? Pork belly? I'm sure we've all had about enough of that by now. Bone broth? Perhaps if you're an aspiring cave person. My vote goes to the Brussels sprout. It's humble, but it can be tricked out in imaginative ways that will surprise diners who remember it only as a sludgy, sulfurous lump to be hidden under the mashed potatoes -- which helps explain why it's suddenly become the glam Brassica on every hip menu in town.
And the fact that Brussels sprouts turn up at Kin Kin Urban Thai says a lot about what's going on here. Sliced, fried to a deep-brown turn with shallots and glazed with a sweet chile sauce, they're tasty enough and interesting enough. But it's hard to imagine a less Thai-seeming vegetable. Kin Kin offers what it bills as "a new twist on Thai cuisine." It's not fusion, exactly (thank heaven), but executive chef Eddy Thretipthuangsin is clearly aiming for the trendy, the accessible and the crowd-pleasing.
This 3-month-old Oak Lawn restaurant marks the return to Dallas of its chef. Thretipthuangsin had been the chef at Pakpao but left abruptly soon after that Design District Thai spot was named one of The Dallas Morning News' best new restaurants of 2013. He opened, and then closed, a new American restaurant called Bite City Grill in Fort Worth before returning to his Thai roots with the first Kin Kin, also in Cowtown, last spring. Both Kin Kins offer the same menu, and the chef apparently has a minichain in mind: A third is slated to open soon in Preston Forest Village, and a fourth is planned for Richardson, along with a reprised Bite City.
The vast, shimmering dining room in Dallas is certainly made to please. With its huge, glowingly lit circular bar, big comfortable booths, handsome wood-paneled walls, coffered ceilings -- and, yes, giant TV screens playing sports -- it looks like an elegant steakhouse. There is a pretty, little traditional dining room, called the sanctuary room, where guests sit on cushions at low tables, but in the main rooms there's not much in the way of Asian knickknackery. One of the few signs that you are not in the Knox-Henderson watering hole of the moment is the 169-character full ceremonial name of Bangkok on a wall behind the bar.
Several of the more traditional dishes are well-executed, with touches that elevate them beyond what you'd get in a neighborhood Thai place. There are handmade dumplings -- pork and shrimp, mushroom and chive, or duck. We got to try only the pork-and-shrimp variety despite our best efforts (more about that in a moment), but those were at least nicely seared and juicy, with a soy dipping sauce. Pork sates are savory and tender skewers of grilled meat served with a rich, chunky peanut sauce. The chicken meatballs come swimming in a little bowl of deeply flavorful yellow curry. And the Thai beef jerky is nicely chewy and beefy. A starter of grilled calamari, though, tasted unpleasantly fishy.
Among the classic main dishes, the pad kee mow, or drunken noodles -- big, flat rice noodles stir-fried with bell pepper, onion, string beans and holy basil, along with chicken, shrimp, pork or tofu -- thrums with chili heat and wok hay, the sizzled flavor of stir-frying over high heat. The same choice of proteins is available in traditional Thai curries: yellow, red, green and "robust jungle style," in ascending incendiary order. For most mortals, the green curry, gang keaw, will be quite hot enough.
Some of the more imaginative dishes seem to run off the rails, though. Like the Brussels sprouts, a number of them are marred by a repetitive, one-dimensional sweetness that isn't counterbalanced by tart or salty: the Bangkok shrimp, a starter of not-quite-crisp-enough fried shrimp doused in plum sauce, and, similarly, a main of chicken in tamarind sauce.
Besides the regular menu, there's also an insert called the Thai Thai menu, where diners are invited to "check out what people in Bangkok are eating now." If that's true, some of what people are eating in Bangkok is pretty good, like the eggplant prik pao, a zippy and fresh stir-fry of vegetables and tofu with smoked chili, and the delicious, unctuous braised beef short rib in fiery green curry with Thai basil.
And some of it's downright weird. The signature dish at Kin Kin -- the name means "eat, eat" -- is the Kin Kin burger, two grilled ground beef patties in a "bun" that's really two disks of sticky rice. There's even a slice of tomato and some red onion and lettuce. It's a whimsical notion that Chef Eddy T describes as a riff on his childhood favorite street-food snack of grilled pork and sticky rice. Too bad the burgers themselves are underseasoned and unremarkable, so it feels like a witticism whose punch line falls flat.
The service at Kin Kin, though amiable, can be as uneven as the food. One night, our often-confused waiter managed not to bring us our duck dumplings, even after discussing and double-checking the order.
On the plus side, someone here knows what wines work with this sort of food. The brief list includes several floral, chewy whites, like viognier, muscat, albariño and riesling.
And the even briefer dessert list includes a rich, delicious green tea cheesecake, which proves that playing with the lines between East and West can indeed pay off.
Kin Kin Urban Thai (2 stars)
Price: $$ (appetizers, soups and salads $3.95 to $9.75; lunch entrees $7.95 to $9.95; dinner entrees $10.95 to $26.95; desserts $7 to $9)
Service: Servers are amiable, though their competence varies. One struggled to get an order right -- and never brought one dish we asked for.
Ambience: An unusually elegant dining room dominated by a large, dramatically lit circular bar. Despite touches such as a traditional Thai "sanctuary room" where guests sit on cushions on the floor, features such as the many large TV screens make for a slightly generic feel.
Noise level: The restaurant is rarely crowded and the tables are generously spaced, so noise isn't much of a problem.
Location: 3211 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas; 972-925-0006; kinkinurbanthai.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday noon to
11 p.m.; Sunday noon to 9 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A beer list offers two dozen or so selections from Asia and Texas; a brief wine list includes some whites that pair well with spicy food.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor