Situated on the first floor of a glass-sheathed office building, the only clue that Khao San Road restaurant lies beyond these transparent frames is the rather modest blue neon sign behind the glass.
The lively patterned tile wall if the first thing you notice upon entering. This Thai restaurant, located at 11 Charlotte Street (between King and Adelaide Sts.) in the Financial district in Toronto, sports these tiles imported directly from Thailand, which adds to the authenticity of the place.
Khao San Road via Twitter
The name Khao San Road comes from a road in Bangkok dating from 1892, that was formerly a major rice market but is now known as a "backpackers' ghetto," offering everything from inexpensive accommodations to a variety of sundry items for travellers staying there.
First opening in 2011 on Adelaide Street West by Nuit and Jeff Regular, a rent hike forced subsequent owner Monte Wan and his crew to find a new location early on in 2016. After a year-long search and renovation of the new site, it opened up last February. There is also a bar upstairs called Bang Sue's, which serves craft beer, craft cocktails, snacks and desserts.
"We have added 25 per cent more seats at this new location," reveals Monte Wan, " and with the extra seats added, we are able to accommodate everyone with minimal waits if any. We now offer a few more options for group dining and/or special occasion events upstairs [at Bang Sue Bar] which we did not have the capacity for at the old location."
The decor is very industrial but comfortable, with dark hardwood floors, concrete walls, exposed pipes along the ceiling, and hanging pot lights over the communal tables across from the bar area. Lots of natural light is let in by the floor to ceiling windows, and patrons can readily see Toronto going about its day in all the frenzy that entails.
While the restaurant is well laid out and functional, there is no option to get a table if you're on your own, and I was forced to sit at the bar, which is quite a cramped place to try and enjoy a meal. Not that they were rude about it but unequivocally firm with no option to get a small (2 seat) table. It was a little off-putting for sure, and I got there early and it was not busy so I'm sure they could have been a little more amenable to my request.
Otherwise, the atmosphere was quite good, with the hubbub of other patrons conversation, the aromas wafting from the kitchen area, the pleasant decor and the hustle and bustle of Toronto in rush hour mode beyond the windows.
The Arhan Wang (Starters) will run you from $6.95 to $14.95, while the Arhan Jaan Lug (Main dishes), including the Guay Tiaw (Noodle), Gaeng (Curry) and the Ar Han Nae Num Pra Jum Raan (Signature) options will set you back $16.95. You can also inquire about their daily specials, which are also Mealshare options, meaning that ordering one will provide a meal to a child or youth in need. Very cool.
For an appetizer, I chose the Gra Bong (Squash fritters), which were quite good, although a little difficult to eat and rather messy to consume overall. They came with a side dipping sauce of red curry, which was quite delicious. For $13.75, it was quite a steal. You can also get fresh rolls, papaya salad, crispy rice salad, grilled steak salad,, garlic tofu, garlic chicken, garlic shrimp, and their soup of the day.
Chef Top Srisomphan, who acquired her culinary education in Thailand, came to Canada eight years ago. According to Wan, one of their most popular dishes is Chef Top's Bangkok-style Pad Thai: "It's a flavourful dish our patrons really enjoy."
However, for the main course, I felt like trying one of their signature dishes, a curry, so my server Nu, directed me to sample the Khao Soi. It was quite delicious and a bounty of rich flavour, although a bit less liquid and more solid ingredients would have been helpful. It was made with egg noodles, golden curry, coconut milk, scallions, coriander and lime. I went with the chicken but I could have also had tofu. Beef and Shrimp were available for an additional cost as well. The crispy rice noodles atop the curry were also quite good.
Guests can order any dish with variations of spiciness, from 0 (no spice) to 11 (Chef Top spicy). Not all that adventurous, and perhaps a bit of a chicken, I decided to go with mild spice, or a number 1. You can also get green curry, red curry, yellow curry, panang curry, and Chef Top's massaman curry. For noodle dishes, you can get Chef Top's Pad Thai, three flavours pad thai, pad see ew (wide rice noodles, chinese broccoli, egg, garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce) and pad kee mao (wide rice noodles, long green pepper, bamboo shoot, egg, mushroom, thai basil, red bell pepper, garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce).
In addition to the Khao Soi, they also have several other signature dishes, including the pad gra prao (red bell pepper, onion, garlic, fresh green chili, holy basil, served with fried egg, served on rice with a choice of chicken pork or tofu/beef and shrimp can be substituted for a buck and two bucks respectively) the kua gling (spicy housemade curry paste, fresh makrut lime leaf, served on rice with chicken pork or tofu/beef and shrimp for an extra cost) and the green curry fried rice (green curry, rice, bamboo shoot, green bell pepper, thai basil, fish sauce with a choice of chicken, vegetable or tofu, with beef and shrimp again at an additional cost).
Khao San Road doesn't offer any desserts at the restaurant, although they do offer sweet options upstairs at Bang Sue Bar. From what my server told me, they have Dessert Rotis and a variety of flavours of gelato, including Thai flavours like Thai Iced Tea flavour, made exclusively by Millie Creamery.
After my meal, however, I decided to forgo the walk upstairs and the procurement of dessert, but they sounded great and I will try them next time I'm in.
Cold water was served and replenished frequently during my meal. Since I was driving, I tried the Chai Nom Yen (Thai Iced Tea) for $4.95, which is made in the traditional way with milk, sugar and spices. Really hit the spot and was a refreshing accompaniment to my meal. I also had a Coca Cola for $2.85.
They also have an extensive beer, wine and cocktail list available if you're inclined to have something a little stronger than Thai Iced Tea or Coca Cola with your meal.
The service was good, and my server Nu was quite attentive and helpful, bringing my drinks and food within a reasonable period of time and clearing away the finished plates and glasses with equal aplomb. She was also very informative about what main to order, suggesting the Khao Soi, which turned out to be a good choice.
I felt quite full and pleasantly so, in a very healthy way. That's probably why I did not opt for dessert as I had no more room to spare. Good food and atmosphere, I'll certainly be back to Khao San Road, but I'll bring a friend or two so we can get a table and not have to sit at the cramped bar.
Going into the future, Owner Monte Wan says there is a continual process of refinement:
The concept of Khao San Road from inception has been to strive for serving the highest quality Thai food we can. We evaluate ways to improve each dish and offer high-quality ingredients and continue our focus on training our cooks. We hope people will continue to enjoy what we have to offer.
Khao San Road is open Monday to Saturday for lunch from 11:30am to 2:30pm and for dinner on those days from 5pm to 10pm. It is also open for dinner on Sunday from 5pm to 10pm. Vegan and gluten-friendly options are on the menu. Catering and delivery are also available.