An Extremely Confident Thai Restaurant in Poblacion Skips the Pad Thai
Picture this: You are craving Thai food. You imagine a table crowded with tom yum goong, green chicken curry, som tum, and, of course, pad thai. You make your way over to the newly opened Thai restaurant in Poblacion in the hopes of turning this dream into a reality. You pore over the menu and discover that your favorite Thai noodles are unavailable.
Khao Khai Thai Chicken House, or Khao Khai, wants to give you a new Thai food experience, or, rather, an old one.
Khao Khai is an aesthetic spelling of kao kai or chicken rice in Bangkok.
Pad Thai is actually a newer Thai dish, around 80 years old, and, in some stories, not rooted in Thailand. According to one legend, in the 1940s, Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram launched a national competition to create a distinctly Thai noodle dish. The winning dish was called kway teow pat thai, which was inspired by Chinese migrants who sold noodles to Thai workers on the street.
Another account traces the roots of pad thai back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350 to 1767). The noodle dish was introduced by Chinese traders and developed its identity as it evolved. Its incorporation of tamarind gave it a distinctly Thai flair and locals embraced it as a snack dish usually enjoyed during the night.
Seasoned traveler and restaurateur Daniel Mabanta (Señor Pollo, Crying Tiger) kept this in mind when planning for Khao Khai. He traveled to the Land of Smiles extensively over the past five years, but his breakthrough came when he visited Portand, Oregon, in 2018. Mabanta observed a strong Thai restaurant culture that surprisingly stayed true to what he saw in Thailand.
He, his business partner, and a few members of his team trooped over to Thailand to study its lifestyle. Four months later, Khao Khai opened its doors.
Many of the dishes come from Isan, which is considered Thailand's culinary capital because of its complex and spicy dishes. Its cuisine is also the most common in Bangkok.
The team's trips introduced them to a wider range of regional Thai dishes that understandably pushed the usual noodles and curry to the sidelines. According to Mabanta, he has not once seen pandan chicken and bagoong rice—staple dishes in Southeast Asian restaurants in Manila—in Thailand.
"Here, it's a bit boring for me. Because I find Thailand to be one of the most complex regional food capitals of the world," Mabanta admitted. "Bangkok is just so vibrant and gritty. They are such a proud people. And there is an element of danger: I love that about them. The red light district and lady boys, the mixture of the whole thing is exciting to me. That is also very reflective of their food."
Mabanta says the Thai food scene in Manila is actually good—his family, in fact, owns another Poblacion favorite, Crying Tiger—but he wanted to go beyond the usual offerings to highlight real Thai cuisine, which he believes boasts the best street food in the world.
He keeps pad thai off the menu and introduces dishes from the North, the Northeast bordering Laos and Cambodia (known as Isan/Isaan or the real Thailand), Central Thailand, and South Thailand (which offers the spiciest, turmeric-heavy Thai cuisine thanks to its proximity to Malaysia).
The final menu features 15 to 20 dishes, representing the more underrepresented parts of Thailand. Mabanta emphasizes: If you want pad thai, you can get that anywhere. If you want something else, you come here.
Instead of noodles, you can sate your carb cravings with the sticky rice (P65, served in a woven cup). The idea is to dig out the rice with your fingertips, roll it into a ball, and dip it into the som tam (P250, a hand-cut papaya salad). Som tam stems from Isan and its sour limes, fish sauce, fiery chilis, and sweet palm sugar provide a good complement to the heavy rice. You might as well add the gai yang, another Isan dish featuring charcoal chicken, in the mix.
Sticky rice and gai yang
IMAGE: Kai Huang
Thais are just like Pinoys; they love a good beer so Khao Khai is sure to please with a P95 bottle of Chang, the Thai word for elephant and a beer brand well-loved by travelers looking to socialize. Chang helps ease the heat from the deceptively sweet but spicy nang kai tort (P300), which is a plate of fried chicken skin done Thai style. Go easy on this and be sure to share with a friend or two.
Nang kai tort or fried chicken skin
Gai tod, Bangkok street cart-style fried chicken, can be found anywhere in the capital. For P115 (one piece) this comes with jasmine or sticky rice and dipping sauces.
From Southern Thailand is the dry pork curry (P225), which is flavored with turmeric, lemon grass, and kaffir lime. Crack the egg over the meat and rice to further enrich the dish. The moo krob kra pao (P350) is a unique peppery dish because of the holy basil added in the stir fry with pork belly, chilis, and fish sauce.
There's no Thai chef or Thai consultant at the helm. Khao Khai is a product of passion and research and talented people who know how to make things happen. Mabanta tries to emulate Andy Ricker of Pok Pok restaurants in the U.S., the perfect example of how a foreigner can do amazing things with Thai food.
Dry pork curry
Moo krob kra
The picture of Lord of the Rings is there just because. Mabanta is also an avid fan of Anthony Bourdain and wanted to commemorate him in any way.
Mabanta, whose Señor Pollo is right across Khao Khai, is also happy that his latest project can bring back the basic, hole-in-the-wall vibe to the overly trendy, uppity Poblacion area. Having been there since Pob's early days of grunge and simplicity, he hopes that his kitschy, loud pink interiors with Thai music and table cloths that echo a Bangkok streetfood stall will add a splash of easy comfort in the area.
5772 Ebro Street, Poblacion, Makati