If you are looking for pineapple curry or dislike spicy foods, Khaosan Thai may not be the place for you. Co-owner Nestor Felix dismisses the curry as “not even real Thai food—we serve only authentic dishes here.” And as for spice, there is medium, hot, and, for the adventurous, Thai hot.
“Some customers come in and ask why the food is spicy,” he told San José Spotlight. “We tell them it is spicy because it is Thai food, particularly when it comes from the northern region. The people there are proud of the spiciness, and we want to honor that. It is part of the sequence of the dish, the order the ingredients are added. It is not just hot sauce added after everything is cooked.”
Khaosan is a small restaurant with a comfortable parklet at 2062 Curtner Ave. in San Jose. It’s named after an area in Bangkok known as Khaosan Road, which has become a Mecca for international food enthusiasts.
Co-owner Anukul Phanoong says most people who order their food “Thai hot” are not Thai customers at all. “Thai people are going to order their food ‘hot,’ probably,” he said. “But probably 90% of the people ordering Thai hot are not going to be Asian people. They are the same people who like the challenge of really the hottest of the hot sauces. They come in and order the Thai hot, and I ask them, ‘Are you sure?’”
Phanoong worked as a cook while going to college in the mountain city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and later immersed himself in the street food of Bangkok. When it came time for Phanoong to open a food truck in the San Francisco Bay Area, the menu was strictly street food with a northern Thai emphasis.
That cuisine was the obvious choice when he and Felix opened Khaosan.
“Bangkok is a melting pot, and the food is a mix from all over Thailand,” Felix said. “Most Thai restaurants focus on the central part of Thailand and Bangkok style because tourists are more used to it. But we wanted to do something different, focusing on the northern regions, and our customers have been open to it.”
Northern cooking emphasizes fresh vegetables and a lot of meat, compared to the central region which is more about sauces and stir-fry. It is light—you don’t have heavier ingredients like coconut milk.
Khao Soi is a typical dish and Phanoong’s favorite. It’s a light peanut-based curry usually made with chicken drumsticks, but can be ordered with pork, beef or shrimp. It’s served with egg noodles along with pickled cabbage and onions for texture, and comes with a side of chili paste, so you can test your heat tolerance and make it as spicy as you want.
“If I have only one choice,” Felix said, “I will have the Khao Soi. It is a very complex and satisfying dish and is just delicious.”
Phanoong’s second choice is the Larb Salad, which does not resemble a conventional salad at all. The only greens are a few leaves of lettuce, some raw carrots and cucumbers which sit beside a bowl filled with finely ground chicken or pork, stir-fried with green onions, Thai chilis, pork skin and Thai herbs. It’s served with rice, some greens, fried pork rinds and dipping sauces.
The heat from the chilis, which have been fried to a deep, dark color, is integral to the dish, lingering in the mouth and bringing the simple ingredients together. They not only infuse the dish with a pleasant warmth, but also a slightly smoky flavor.
Another popular dish is Hand Lay Curry, which might be a good starting point for people not looking for a lot of spice. Fork-tender slow-cooked pork is served with a light curry made with ginger and garlic, with sticky rice on the side. There is some heat to the dish, but the main flavor notes come from a beautiful balance of garlic and ginger, which makes this an accessible choice. People accustomed to heavier curries might miss coconut milk and the sweetness that comes from it, but this lighter curry lets the subtle flavors shine.
While focusing on the northern region, Khaosan still has some favorites like Pad Thai and papaya salads. There is a selection of appetizers, including Chicken Satay, along with soups, fried rice and desserts. The restaurant also offers its own line of bottled tamarind and chili sauces.
“I have been working in the food industry for 25 years,” said Felix. “And if you do not have a passion for this industry, it is hard to be successful. To me, it is very gratifying to know that people enjoy what we have to offer. We are very lucky to have been busy since day one and to have customers who are willing to experiment with something that is really very different from what they have come to think of as Thai food.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]
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2062 Curtner Ave. in San Jose
Social media: https://www.instagram.com/khaosan_thai_restaurant/
- Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5-8:30 p.m.
- Saturday 12-9 p.m.
- Sunday 12-8:30 p.m.