If you live in a cosmopolitan city and you love to eat, chances are that you’ve sampled Thai cuisine at one point in your life. Anyone who considers themselves a foodie is most likely very familiar with the coconut milk-enriched curries, the flavors of lemongrass and galangal, the fiery nam prik chilis, and the sweet undertones from the addition of creamy palm sugar. Miami isn’t generally known for having a large Thai constituency, but that doesn’t deter from the fact that we have a generous selection of good Thai restaurants, and with good reason: the complex flavors of Thai cuisine tend to fare well in a tropical climate like that of South Florida. Nevertheless, what many of us think we know about Thai cuisine is just the tip of the iceberg...or in the case of Thailand, the tip of the peninsula. Thailand, while a lot smaller than the US, is a large, very old, and quite diverse country, and the majority of the Thai cuisine that is available in Miami and much of the rest of the country is the fiery, aggressively flavored cuisine of the south. While southern Thai cuisine is arguably delicious, discovering the cuisines of northern Thailand is a true epiphany that will turn any newbie into an instant convert leading them to thumb through the pages of Thai menus looking for sticky rice and Chiang Rai sausages. We used to have an authentic northern Thai restaurant in Kendall many years ago, but it appeared as if Miami just wasn’t quite ready to embrace a Thai cuisine that was dissimilar to the coconut milk curries, pad thai, and heaps of jasmine rice most people were familiar with. It wasn’t until the foodie revolution hit Miami hard that the 305 was ready to embrace regional ethnic cuisines, and that’s when John Kunkel decided to open Khong River House on Lincoln Road in the old Miss Yip’s space.
I am one of those instant converts to northern Thai cuisine and became enamored on first bite with the milder, more delicate flavors of this regional style of cooking. I instantly fell in love with the sticky - sometimes called glutinous - rice that is preferred in this part of Thailand over jasmine rice, and I soon purchased a traditional Thai rice steamer and a 5 pound bag of sticky rice so that I can make it at home. Ever since I was exposed to northern Thai cuisine at Siam Gourmet in Kendall, I have scanned the menu at every Thai restaurant looking for some of the dishes I had there, and I was saddened when I discovered that it closed. When I heard that Khong was to open on Lincoln Road and that it was to specialize in the cuisine of northern Thailand and the surrounding regions, I was thrilled but also curious to see how it will be done in such a trendy part of town. Surely this wasn’t going to be 100% traditional mom-and-pop shop type fare, and I experienced firsthand just how innovative Khong is in interpreting northern Thai cooking when I visited the restaurant for brunch.
Brunch is an almost exclusively American concept. Sure, there is breakfast in every part of the world, but that idea of a leisurely weekend meal somewhere between breakfast and lunch that includes champagne and eggs benedict is endemic to our gastronomic culture. We love our weekend brunches, and while we do love our eggs benedict and French toast, sometimes we’d like to try something a little more exotic, which is why a lot of the more modern and upscale ethnic restaurants in Miami have begun to offer brunch on the weekend. Khong is no exception. The brunch menu at Khong River House is reasonably priced and offers some very Thai dishes, like noodles, along with a selection of creative Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and a few fusion dishes that incorporate northern Thai elements into traditional American breakfast items. We started with a couple of orders of steamed bao (buns). One was filled with a combination of Chiang Rai sausage and scrambled Lake Meadows eggs with local tomatoes. The eggs were creamy and fluffy and the unmistakable northern Thai sausage was spicy, garlicky, and assertively seasoned with lemongrass. The other bao were filled with slow-braised pork belly seasoned with turmeric, lemongrass, and tamarind juice topped with cilantro, cucumber and house made peanut butter sauce. The pork belly was tender and melted in my mouth, and the flavor of each ingredient broke in waves across my palate making each bite more exciting than the last. The dough on the buns was of medium thickness and managed to hold together very well given the very moist fillings.
We progressed to a couple of more substantial items that we shared among the table. A dish of slow-braised pork leg seasoned with a blend of 16 spices arrived on a bed of jasmine rice and was served with pickled greens and what appeared to be a tea-boiled egg with a side of roasted chili vinaigrette. The pork was fork tender and very well-seasoned, the rice was perfectly cooked, and the pickled greens offered a pleasant acidity to counter the richness of the pork. The hard boiled egg had an earthy flavor to it from what I assumed to be a hot bath in strong black tea. While the chile vinaigrette did offer a bit more zing and spice, the dish could stand alone without it. Khong’s brunch menu also offers a selection of noodle dishes which all contain chili in one incarnation or another, although we opted for a milder Burmese-style noodle dish (northern Thai cuisine is very much influenced by its neighbor, Burma). The vegetarian dish consisted of slender egg noodles tossed with mixed vegetables in a very light mushroom soy and could be likened to the Chinese chow mei fun. This dish arrived with little saucers of sugar, crushed peanuts, and chili powder, which diners can add at their discretion, and which I found to give the dish a bit more character.
Thais are known for having an insatiable sweet tooth beyond a craving for Thai donuts and lychees in syrup, and several brunch offerings are reflective of this, taking some traditional Thai street sweets and adapting them slightly to fit American brunch favorites. Coconut and sesame pancakes resembled a diner shortstack, although Khong’s version is laced with shredded coconut and black sesame and arrives with side of Mekong syrup made with Thailand’s quintessential native spirit flavored with a blend of secret herbs and spices. I found the pancakes to be a bit lackluster and little doughy for my liking, which seemed to be the consensus among the rest of the table. Mekong syrup also accompanies a dish of Thai morning toast that is supposed to be a take on French toast consisting of slices of baguette quickly dipped in egg batter, fried, and topped with diced crystallized ginger. Despite claiming to be a take on French toast, Khong’s morning toast was a far cry from the custardy breakfast standard found in American restaurants with a crispier exterior and a much dryer interior that - coupled with their smaller size - made for a perfect finger food to share with the table. There was one very traditional Thai sweet that ordered from the selection of side dishes, which was the sticky rice and plantain steamed in a banana leaf. I guess in an attempt to not put off the average diner, the menu fails to mention that the confection traditionally also contains black beans, which I was expecting. While my dining partners are very open minded when it comes to food, I was genuinely surprised at how much they enjoyed this delicacy - black beans and all. While it was delicious and offered that very typical balance of sweet and salty, I did find that the rice was cooked a little too much to the point of being a bit mushy, and sticky rice is a particular variety in which the chewy texture is the most addictive part.
Overall, I have to say that Chef Bee, who had worked in the kitchen at Nobu before opening Oishi Thai in North Miami Beach and later coming to Khong, has done an exemplary job at creating a brunch menu that is decidedly authentic in flavor while offering innovative spins that demonstrate his culinary creativity. I found the prices to be quite reasonable for the quality of food served at brunch, although I am very curious to try their dinner offerings, which seem to hit the nail on the head when it comes to authenticity. Perhaps one of the most refreshing things about Khong River house is that while it strives for authenticity in its cuisine, the décor and ambiance refrain from making the establishment into a themed restaurant. Granted there are one or two Buddha statues strategically placed here and there, but the overall impression is one that gives the diner the feel of being in northern Thailand along the Mekong river without feeling like one is at Epcot Center. Bravo to the interior designer! I hope that Khong’s apparent success among Miami’s foodies will inspire chefs, restaurateurs, and the general public to offer and explore more regional styles of ethnic cuisines we think we already know.
Brunch is served at Khong River House on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Khong River House
1661 Meridian Avenue
Miami Beach, Florida 33139