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[whitespace] Mukda Saengow
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Tray Bien: Krung Thai's Mukda Saengow serves up plates of Choo Chee Goong and Padthai.

King Krung

The exquisite cookery at Krung Thai bursts with flavors and spices that light the palate like firecrackers on the Fourth of July

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

THE EVOLUTION OF the Krung Thai restaurant chain has resulted--in its latest stage--in something tantamount to the opening of a rare and beautiful flower. The seedling was first planted in 1988 in a dismal shopping center on San Carlos Street in San Jose. The spicy aromas from its kitchen went to war with--and were often defeated by--the odors of frying doughnuts and auto emissions from neighboring establishments. But no matter. No one ever said the restaurant business would be easy. Moreover, it seems that the initial trials of Krung Thai served to build its character and forced it to focus on the true talent walking the slats of its kitchen.

The stage-two eatery opened in a more spacious and appealing site (still in operation) on Winchester (across from Century 24), where Krung Thai began to receive serious notice from bona fide restaurant critics impressed by the quality of the food.

But the flower I speak of now is the one that has finally achieved full bloom; it's just down the road from the one near the Century, in a new location on the boulevard, near Valley Fair. This is the dream come true, the flagship that will carry this establishment to ever greater heights on the evolutionary scale. My guests and I were thoroughly impressed with the food, the bright new décor, the attentive service and all the various and sundry pleasures that came at us from every corner.

Truly, this was Thai cuisine at its best--an exquisite exhibition of authentic Thai cookery bursting with flavors and spices that lit the palate like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. All dishes were based on quality raw products that were put to the pan by chefs--not hacks with questionable skills, but real chefs who love their craft and are deep with talent and know-how.

When you come here, be prepared, be ready to go the distance with this wonderful food. Krung Thai's brand of cooking will turn you around and redefine the principles by which you currently conduct your life. No kidding. Wear good shoes and a light shirt, because when the peppers get going, you will sweat, and sweat a lot. Cleansing.

We opened with satay ($6.95), a delicious rendering of skewered meats--we had beef--seasoned and broiled and presented with peanut sauce and a marinated cucumber salad. Flawless.

Our next appetizer, Goong Kra-Tiem ($9.95), was even better than the first. Put all preconceived notions of "deep-fried" into a different file. The prawns (with shell) were fried to greaseless perfection and then lightly sautéed in fresh minced garlic and peppers full of electricity. Flavors were immediate and pungent, yet measured and uncomplicated. From Thai curries, we stretched our palates with our next selection, Keaw Wan Pla Muek ($10.95), a dish that left a trail of sweet perfume from the kitchen all the way to the table. This ambrosia of tender calamari--stuffed to capacity with ground seasoned pork--was simmered in a liquid variation of green curry, eggplant and coconut milk. Each mouthful forced us to close our eyes in blissful meditation. Some of us even drank the liquid with spoons.

Krung Thai chefs are adept at achieving resolution between hot and cold--the best example found in either Gai (chicken) or Neua (beef) Kra-Praw, both $6.95. We couldn't decide which meat to have, so we asked for a combination of both and were glad we did. I've had this dish many times before in many different Thai restaurants, but never have I experienced the flavor sensations of this particular reading. Here, the juxtaposition of hot and cold rendered flavors that were deeper, richer and far more pungent than anything I've tasted heretofore in the South Bay.

No dinner in a Thai restaurant is complete without one of Thailand's most treasured commodities: salads. With Thai salads, you can never escape the awakening jolt to the taste buds. There are many varieties, but I prefer mine with either whole prawns or sliced beef, both of which seem to hold up best in the intense dressings. This go-around we had grilled prawns (in shell, $9.95) in a tangy marinade full of lime juice, sweet red onions and lemon grass. Again, spoons came into service to drink up the dregs.

Instead of barbecued chicken--which I prefer--we tried the barbecued ribs ($7.95), an offering I must confess I've not seen before on a Thai menu. The pork meat was in good condition--fresh and full of flavor--but it didn't quite gel with the seasonings that turned everything an artificial pinkish hue. It's simply OK. I'd have it in a pinch, but wouldn't go out of my way. Go for the chicken ($7.95). Krung Thai has a special recipe that is unique.

A vegetarian Pad Thai ($7.95) provided us with our carbohydrate for the evening. The fried rice noodles were slightly overcooked and gummy, but the flavors of the ingredients were not compromised. Adding an extra squeeze of fresh lime loosened up the noodles, creating a more enjoyable experience. We also threw in a little chile paste, which didn't hurt.

Krung Thai may very well be the best restaurant of its kind in this area. Overall, the food is excellent, but that's not all. The decor combines the look of authentic Thai architecture with elegantly serene colors: Cream-white walls, Thailand-style molding over the windows and aquamarine tablecloths create the atmosphere. In addition, we were treated to a display of photographs of past kings, and in one case we found them in the company of a recognizable American dignitary: Elvis Presley, no less.

Interestingly, as this restaurant moves up and grows larger, the more efficient its service seems. Though more than one server came to our table, our meal was managed without mishap. Everybody seemed well trained and aware of their duties.

When you're finished with a meal at Krung Thai (whether up the street or down on Winchester), you know you've eaten. Every inch of your being will be engaged. You'll need some heavy rest after this one.

Krung Thai
Address: 580 N. Winchester Blvd., San Jose
Phone: 408.248.3435
Cuisine: Best Thai
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11am-3pm; dinner Mon.-Fri. 5-10pm and Sat.-Sun. noon-10pm.
Price range: $6.95-$13.95

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From the May 11-17, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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