The deepest loves aren’t glamorous. I fell for Thai cuisine in Los Angeles strip malls, dizzy over bowls of black sticky rice with taro. Still deeper I fell, eating mysterious little banana leaf–wrapped packages in Bangkok and Luang Prabang. Here along the East Bay, every town has its Thai place, but not all Thai is created equal. Named for the famed Bangkok street, Khao San took me to East Providence – and back to the strip mall days. It’s well capable of becoming a local gem.
Like my favorite old haunts, this place is simple on the outside, with friendly handwriting on the front window advertising “Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango.” Takeout is dealt with in front, so if you dine in you won’t be watching a parade of brown bags over your papaya. Thai food is really best shared with a group, and these are accommodated with plenty of bench seating and larger tables, as well as stools by the window. Everything was absolutely spotless: the tables, the windows, and the floor. Spotless, that is, until my one-year-old was through with his curry.
Khao San’s specials do a good job of diversifying the otherwise canonical menu of rice, curry, noodles, and soup. Crucially, nothing on the lunch menu was over $10, including combo specials with an appetizer and entree.
I started with the fresh lemonade ($3), which was authentically Thai and eye-scrunchingly sweet and sour. We chose a couple of staples, with Massaman Curry ($10) and Pad Thai ($9). From the specials menu, we chose the Boat Noodle Soup ($10), a less-famous Thai classic.
Some of the starters were basic by design; the chicken soup’s broth is light and clear, like a get-well-soon card sent from Bangkok and filled with scallions. The salad greens could be from anywhere, but not the sweet, peanut-infused dressing. The scallion pancakes, though – now we’re talking. Two wedges of flaky dough fried to golden brown perfection, but not greasy to the touch; a perfect simple finger food appetizer.
Considering the price, I was quite impressed with the sharp presentation of all of our entrees. I’ve never seen Boat Noodles dressed up so well. In a bright square bowl, the pork rinds looked like a garnish, flanked by carefully mounded herbs. The Chinese broccoli was perfectly stewed alongside cleanly sliced pork – not bad for a dish that gets its name from being ladled off boats in a Bangkok canal. The flavor was subtle, but I still tasted the essential Thai interplay of sour, sweet, and spice in this rendition.
Khao San is definitely pulling its punches with spice, so if you want to get socked in the mouth, just ask, because Thai can always go up to eleven. The server produced a range of chilies in a handsome set of little glass jars.
The Massaman Curry should be quite mild. I’m a sucker for the richness of coconut milk and had no problem spooning through all the beef and tender, crinkle-cut potatoes and carrots. The Pad Thai, left naked, was on the sweet side, but a couple sprinkles of chili and I was soon happily gorging on this quintessential street food. No scanty garnishes here, which is good, because in Thailand fresh herbs flow like salad greens, and all were crisp and fresh.
“Does your baby like Thai food?” asked an older man as my kid painted his own face with curry.
“It looks like it,” I replied. “But he’s kind of figuring it out.”
“I guess I am too,” the man agreed. No matter the age, young love is a beautiful thing.
332 Warren Avenue, East Providence • 401-438-5227