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KHAO SAN ROAD (326 Adelaide West, at Peter, 647-352-5773, khaosanroad.ca) Complete dinners for $30 per person (lunches $20), including tax, tip and a beer. Average main $13/$10. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, dinner 5 to 10 pm. Closed Sunday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: five steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
No offence, Susur, but Lee Lounge ain't the only hot new boîte in town. Nope, the recently launched resto that's got all the downtown condo crowd a-twitter is a three-week-old Thai trat in the heart of what's left of Clubland.
Named for the low-rent Bangkok boulevard popular with back-packers, Khao San Road is the marginally more luxe spinoff of Sukhothai, the Regent Park hole-in-the-wall that some say is the most - or only! - authentic Thai eatery around. Though the original digs are modest at best, the new 50-seat space mirrors owners Jeff and chef Nuit Regular's move upmarket. Goodbye, formica and fluorescents, hello, butcher block and halogen spots.
The Regulars' regulars will be relieved to learn that Nuit's expanded card is as spectacularly spicy as ever. Her signature Pad Thai Sam Ros ($14 dinner/$12 lunch) is virtually indistinguishable from Sukhothai's "special" version, a delirious stir-fried tangle of monochromatic rice noodles, bean sprouts, scrambled egg and either chicken, beef or pressed tofu spiked with as much roasted-chili hot sauce as you dare, the hotter the better. Fresh to the lineup, "street style" pad thai ($13/$10) adds slivered raw cabbage and green onion tops to the mix.
Another newbie, red curried Pad Phed Pha ($13 dinner only) combines lean strips of pounded pork tenderloin with crunchy Chinese long beans, sour Thai eggplant and holy basil, while Pad Gra Prao ($13/$10) layers fiery minced chicken or beef with barely pickled cucumber and an optional hawker-style fried egg ($1). Returning curries include medium-strength chicken Gaeng Kaew Wan ($12/$8) and mild sweet-and-sour Gaeng Massaman with butterflied tail-on shrimp and crispy shallot ($15 dinner only, all with jasmine rice).
The Kraft Dinner of Siam, Khao Soi ($13/$10) would be better described as linguine topped with a Thai take on Indian-via-Burmese butter chicken, its gravy bright with curry and ginger. Vegan Pad Kee Mao ($12 dinner only) comes across as pad thai's wimpier cousin - until you hit the first chunk of hellaciously hot raw green chili. An extra 3 bucks gets you the soup of the day, tonight a vibrant cream of coconut laced with lime, button mushrooms and explosive cherry tomatoes.
At dinner, a super starter of deep-fried squash fritters (Gra Bong $7) get dunked in tamarind sauce and recall pakoras, while a lunch-only iceberg lettuce salad dressed with shredded chicken in a tangy peanut vinaigrette (Yum Ta Wai) and a sensational fall-from-the-bone pork rib soup (Khanom Jeen, both $8) often show up as suppertime specials.
Not everything works. Near-identical Sukhothai holdovers Garlic Chicken, Garlic Tofu (both $8) and Garlic Shrimp ($9 dinner only) still taste like McNuggets in Shake 'n' Bake. And the sole dessert - plain tapioca ($5) - packs the wallop of pablum, though that's probably the point.
Unlike Sukhothai - which took several months to find an audience - Khao San Road has been swamped from the get-go, particularly by takeout orders, so it sometimes seems that more food leaves the kitchen in paper bags than on plates, much to the dismay of eat-in customers.
So suck back another Singha lager ($6) and remember that nobody said food comes fast.