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Khao Pla - Michael Shen

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21/11/2014

Can you really be a Sydneysider if you haven’t experienced its Asian side? I thoroughly dig this city’s multiculturalism groove. Having travelled to several cities in America, innumerable European ones and countless Asiatic cities to boot, I can confidently say that from a food perspective, we’re lucky to live here.

With all that said, there is always, always room for improvement. I never thought it could be that way for Thai food, given that the market is pretty saturated with some of the best Thai I’ve ever had. But there’s nothing more I love than being proven wrong when I become jaded about the quality and variety of food we have at our doorsteps.

Enter Khao Pla – my new and currently favourite restaurant for my favourite cuisine. I may just move to Chatswood for this…

Date Last Visited: 13/9/2014
Address: 370 Victoria Ave Shop 7 Chatswood, NSW 2067
Recommended Dish(es): pork ribs, banana blossom, Massamun curry

Khao Pla
Try not to pick at the wallpaper

Khao Pla hasn’t even been around for two years yet, but it didn’t take long for the fanned fires of hype to spread to every Thai enthusiast in Sydney. I’m sure the place even converted some Thai cynics.

Stir Fry
Banana blossom – poached chicken, crispy prawns, coriander, shallot, dried shrimp, roasted coconut w/roasted dried chilli, tamarind & palm sugar dressing ($17)

What gives Khao Pla the ability to make such a name for itself in a city that’s already full of excellent fare? It’s a hard question to answer unless you’ve been, but I like to call it the trifecta:

1) Base: food is of excellent quality to begin with
2) Price: remaining price-competitive with other restaurants targeting the same market
3) Draw: signature dishes that can’t be found at other Thai restaurants

So addictive, so banana

Draw: banana blossom. To say that it stands out from the sea of Pad Thais and green curries would be correct, but it would also be underselling it. This is just so good, we ordered it on two separate visits.

What’s good about it? It exemplifies what I love about Thai – it’s suitably spicy, but not overpoweringly so; it’s full of texture – soft chicken, buttery prawns, crunchy veggies; it’s full of flavour. So sharp, such zing.

Step aside Som Tum, bananas rule my world now. Oh, by the way, there really isn’t any banana flavour in this – it’s all in the name. So you banana-haters (seriously, how even?) can enjoy this one!

You’re always going to order some ‘safe’ dishes when you go Asian, and why wouldn’t you, if the dish is salt & pepper soft shell crab? Because squid is too mainstream, Khao Pla decides to shell-shock with these often underrated sea denizens.

There’s really nothing wrong with this dish – juicy meat, crunchy exterior, and that spicy salt is bang-on, finger licking delicious. A staple every time going forward.

When it comes to Thai, there’s always somebody that orders a stir-fried noodle dish. Being one of Thai food’s symbolic icons, pad si ew had better be cooked well, to say the least.

It may be a stretch, but one could even judge the restaurant as a whole based on the quality of its Pad noodle dishes.

We ordered the pad si ew on both our visits to Khao Pla, so I think I’ve made my feelings on this dish very clear. It comes asymptotically close (nerd alert!) to my personal benchmark pad si ew @Holy Basil. The latter is just a tad sweeter which speaks to my palate.

Substitute Khao Pla’s though and I’m sure I’d complain about a thousand other things first. It’s safe, but don’t try to fix this dish. It doesn’t need your savior, only your patronage.

Moving back outside the comfort zone once more, lovers of all things porcine would very much appreciate Khao Pla’s moo krob pad prik khing. It’s pork belly but not as you may know it. In a departure from the usual buttery-soft textures of a French-style belly, this one makes no pretenses about its deep-fried, ultra-crunchy nature.

Oh yes, it’s a textural experience, which will give your teeth a real workout. That said, the meat itself is never stringy or tough – it’s purely thanks to that delicious crackling, which perhaps comes closest to the term “pork chips” than anything I’ve ever tried. I obliterated this dish down to the last green bean, because it’s not just the texture, but that dastardly spicy prik khing curry. I just need to convince dad to add it to his sauce collection…

Not everything about Thai food is about the Pad, we’ve got curries to consider as well, because we all need a varied diet, right? Step on up, Gaeng Panang, a style of curry that’s all about the creamy coconut milk. This is the kind of curry that brings me out of my white-rice avoiding shell and take on a new form. I call it the rice-gorger.

But really, this is when I really flex my rice-eating prowess. Or I would, if we didn’t control ourselves by only ordering small portions of rice. Even so, I practically drank this stuff – it’s a coconut milk curry with all the right textures (creamy but not overly so) with the right flavours (hits your face, but in the best possible way). Translation: liquid crack.

Because I have two visits to Khao Pla under my belt, I took the chance to try out yet another one of their curries, in the form of the “king of curries” – the Massamun. This is honestly one of the best ways to enjoy beef. It’s basically the glorious results of a slow-cooked beef, but with all the punch of a spicy, Malaysian-influenced curry. Think the Gaeng Panang, but with more of a spicy edge and beef instead of chicken.

Oh, and those potatoes – so soft, you could spread it like a sauce on your rice. I know because I did it. This is mash, Thai-style.

With all else that went on with our two meals at Khao Pla, I wondered if the Pad Thai would ever get any love. After all, with blossoming salads, milky curries and fiery pork belly, this cultural icon would be lost amongst the noise.

Admittedly, that kind of did happen. Pad Thai is a safe dish, after all. So safe in fact, that I can’t really remember exactly what I felt about the dish. I’m sure I liked it, but with all else on offer…I’m going to go out on a potentially divisive limb and say – save your carbs and try the food that Khao Pla is really famous for.

Or you know, you could still order it if you’re an ardent Pad Thai lover. To each their own. But then you may not have room for the best Khao Pla has to offer. Yes, I did save it for last.

Ribs
Pork ribs – twice cooked, sweet & sour pork ribs, palm sugar & tamarind ($19)

This is it. The ultima. The light at the end of the tunnel, Khao Pla’s raison d’être. We all love a good rack of pork ribs, but my feelings towards these protein bars transcends mere feelings of love.

I think I may need a new emotion for this.

Crying (tears of joy) aside, these pork ribs are – and I’m calling it – the best I’ve ever had. Make no mistake, the flavour profile is assuredly Asiatic, so if you can’t handle punchy, tangy and slightly spicy flavours, this isn’t for you. For everyone else, welcome to the best.

On our second visit, we knew one serve of these ribs was not going to be enough. Two were required. In retrospect, I should have gone for more. The meat, utterly soft, falls off the bone with silly ease. It manages to maintain this buttery softness despite a gorgeously crunchy exterior, which is slathered in tamarind & palm sugar sauce. You’re not left hunting for flavour at all here, and in fact it could be overwhelming.

Give yourself a break, there’s more…or maybe not, because your friends will have already hoarded every last one. Fight them for it, it’s worth losing a dining companion or two.

Khao Pla would be rated a full point lower if it weren’t for this dish. I think that last sentence captures my feelings towards them best of all.

Did we forget desserts? We surely did not! It isn’t over until the sticky rice sings. Rice as a dessert is only ever strange to people who haven’t had it in dessert form before. I don’t get it often, but Khao Pla’s won my heart, so in I go.

As far as desserts go, Khao Pla’s more muted with its offerings. Sticky rice works if the result is actually sticky rice. Naturally, Khao Pla’s nailed it, as usual. The inclusion of peanuts is a very Thai thing to do, but I tried to avoid them due to the calories. This is coming from a guy that just threw down half a pig’s torso. I’m full of hypocrisy.

Warm black sticky rice, jasmin tapioca, Thai tea ice cream w/dark sugarcane sauce ($10)
Warm black sticky rice, jasmin tapioca, Thai tea ice cream w/dark sugarcane sauce ($10)

For a dessert with a different look, you could pretend to be a bit healthier with the black sticky rice. I actually preferred this one, as the sugarcane flavour brings back nostalgic memories of when it was the only sweet thing I had access to. Good times, and that’s what food is all about.

How did Khao Pla do on the trifecta?

Base: child’s play

Price: mostly reasonable, especially in the heart of Chatswood

Draw: sorry what was that? I was too busy pigging out

If anything, the only weakness is that all the flavour can really get to your head after awhile. Very overwhelming stuff for those used to a lighter and more delicate palate.

That’s a piss-weak excuse, and I know it. The reality is, this is a cracking joint, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three

Awesome:

  • The food is some of the best Thai Sydney has to offer
  • Service is incredibly quick
  • Holy moly those pork ribs

Not so Awesome:

  • Expect waits of up to an hour during busy times
  • Can only book for six people or more
  • All the flavours can get to your head after awhile

8.5/10 Caesars

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