Kaengthai Bistro stands mere steps away from the original location of The King & I, ground zero for many Edmonites’ inaugural Thai food experience and something of a southside landmark after Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood popped in for a bite sometime in the early ‘90s. Unfortunately that location burned down shortly thereafter, displacing The King & I west up Whyte Ave, where it retains its prestige as a pioneer and exemplar of the cuisine.
The reality The King & I imparted to many of its initiates was that Thai was a bit pricier than a lot of its established Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts, a fact borne out by many Thai eateries that have flourished in its wake. The middle ground between relatively cheap and good is seldom attained, but that might be the rule for all Thai food sold outside of Thailand for all I know.
Kaengthai, then, joins the esteemed company of Lan’s Grill and downtown Viphalay’s lunch menu as the exceptions I can think of. It partakes of Lan’s humble storefront ambiance, Viphalay’s mouth-tingling authenticity and a price point that tops out at $13.
To be sure, Kaengthai’s servings seem contrived to appeal to the solo diner (or one that abhors sharing) who wants to make a meal out of a single plate, but you could easily construct a shared repast out of the appetizers, soups, noodles curries and stir-fries on their menu board. When asked, the young woman at the till suggested the Thai calamari ($9.95) and tom kha ($7.95). My special guest co-diner, no stranger to the joint, called out his customary order of green curry with chicken ($10.95).
The calamari followed hot on the heels of our drink order, still sizzling. Lightly battered, fried loops of squid were splashed with soy, interspersed with slices of fried jalapeno and served with a tangy, fish sauce-based dip. I did not regret my decision to order them but, once the co-diner and I set up on them, I realized I was going to need to order more food.
Before the calamari was even done, our entrees arrived. Co-diner received a neat dome of rice on a square white plate alongside a deep bowl of green curry, teeming with eggplant, bell peppers and carrots. Once distributed over his starch, it was rather photogenic with its purples, yellows and oranges lacquered with pale green, coconut milky curry. He was quite content.
I briefly wondered about the wisdom of ordering a hot bowl of soup on a humid summer day, but didn’t give it a second thought once I started spooning up the rich coconut milk-laced broth loaded with mushrooms, big chunks of just-cooked tomato and four juicy shrimp, and imbued with lemongrass, ginger’s perfumey cousin galangal and lime leaf. It harboured a little chili kick too, and the bowl slaked my hunger, at least at the moment. I ordered some pad kea mao with pork ($10.95) to take home, just in case.
I’m glad I did, both because I was hungry two hours later, and because it was my favourite dish of the night. Unlike pad thai, pad kea mao uses wide rice noodles that are both a little chewy and a lot absorbent of garlic, chilies, holy basil, green peppercorns and another aromatic ginger relative called krachai, wound around succulent stir-fried pork, onions, carrots, bell peppers, bamboo shoots, long beans and baby corn. At medium spiciness, demarcated by one pepper on the menu, it made my tongue sing—I’m both terrified and intrigued by what a five-pepper spice rating would do to my digestive and respiratory systems.
The pad kea mao alone would be enough reason for Thai food enthusiasts to hit up Kaengthai, but the menu offers a fair amount to explore, even some vegetarian dishes, at decent prices. And they’re open every day, which really leaves you little excuse.