- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
I lined up the small plastic cups of water like a man prepared to extinguish a controlled burn. I had worn a path from my picnic table to the water jug on my first visit to East Side King’s Thai-Kun trailer at Whisler’s. This time, I was prepared.
Chef Thai Changthong doesn’t shy away from the heat. And he doesn’t pull punches. He and his team serve colorful and electric flavors that match the East Austin food truck from which they operate. He warns customers that certain dishes pack a singing punch, but he would rather train Austin palettes to appreciate his style of cooking than accommodate those accustomed to safer (and sweeter) takes on his native Thai food.
“I’m a hard head,” Changthong says with a laugh. “I don’t know how to twist it to American style. I grew up this way. I don’t know how.”
The beef panang curry ($8) exemplifies the heat and tradition inherent in Changthong’s cooking. The beef simmers for hours in a spicy curry that comes on with a savory glow before spreading its radiant heat that lingers like vapor. Served over fragrant jasmine rice, the curry is cooled slightly by the gentle breeze of kaffir lime leaf and holy basil.
The heat somehow doesn’t annihilate the flavor profiles, but rather enhances and enlivens them. Changthong offers some skeptical guests a small sample before they order, allowing them to gauge their tolerance. The curry is cultivated over hours and used only with the beef. Thai-Kun isn’t a fast food operation that relies on instant sauces or mixing and matching proteins and sauces. As Changthong says about the curry made daily, “No more is no more.”
“To make fast money is one thing, but I don’t want to lie to myself,” Changthong said.
Cartoon images of a scowling Changthong indicate each dish’s spice level, and the waterfall pork ($8) shares the four faces of the panang curry. Supple grilled slices of pork shoulder and pickled slivers of cabbage are splashed with a fiery and tangy Tiger Cry sauce humming with garlic, coriander, fish sauce and peppers. A plastic bag of sticky rice comes with the dish, and Changthong suggests guests wrap the pork with the rice for a makeshift taco. Changthong calls his Thai street cuisine “beer food” (fitting for a trailer located at a bar), and the moniker has two meanings: The food goes well with cold beer (or one of Whisler’s whiskey cocktails smoothed by sarsaparilla), but the soberingly spicy dishes are also good after a few too many beers.
East Side King co-founder Paul Qui was introduced to Changthong’s cooking when they would grub on the incendiary dishes at Changthong’s house after late nights out years ago. Bangkok native Changthong learned to cook from his family, but his father, who owned the restaurant Exotic Thai in Austin, was hesitant to serve at his restaurant the spicy food they ate at home.
“It didn’t make sense to me,” Qui said.
After a trial period (training for free), Changthong worked under Qui at Uchi and later at Uchiko. The “Top Chef” winner and Changthong discussed bringing the traditional Thai food to Austin back then, but it wasn’t until Changthong left the ill-fated (and excellent) Spin Modern Thai in North Austin that the two old friends would have a chance to fulfill the vision.
Qui and his East Side King business partner Moto Utsunomiya brought Changthong on board to collaborate with the new food truck. This iteration of the East Side King trucks bears its own name and brand, as Changthong is the first executive chef to develop a unique menu separate from the other East Side Kings. Changthong will be a partner in a new Thai-Kun truck that will open later this year in front of the Steampunk Saloon on West Sixth Street.
“I trust his instinct with food,” Qui said. “He has something special.”
Changthong and company opened Thai-Kun at the Wonderland bar on East Sixth Street in March 2014 before moving the operation down the street to Whisler’s earlier this year. The name roughly translates to “our good friend Thai” in Japanese, while also nodding to the whirlwind of flavors.
Not all of Thai-Kun’s dishes will leave you running for the water jugs. Crunchy bronzed fried chicken thighs ($8) and tender steamed chicken served with chicken fat rice and a soothing chicken jus ($10) will appeal to even timid diners. But some innocuous sounding dishes hide a fierce sting. Those familiar with Changthong’s alarming papaya salad from Spin will not be surprised by Thai-Kun’s cabbage two ways ($5). Raw cabbage and cabbage dredged in rice flour and fried are served amid a cacophony of flavors and myriad textures from cucumber, red onion, cilantro, basil, green onions and peanuts. A tamarind sauce laces the dish with an intriguing blend of sweet and sour, but … wait for it … here comes the heat. Changthong just can’t seem to help himself.
The affable chef isn’t trying to intimidate diners. He cooks from a place of sincerity and wants to be a pioneer in bringing the flavors of his home to Austin, while passing on his culture to his cooks and customers. He recognizes that the cuisine may challenge some less adventurous palates, but he refuses to waver from his mission.
“If you want to eat Thai food, you don’t have to go to Thailand; you can eat here,” Changthong said. “I try to put my heart into it. If I am going to fail, let me fail the way it should be.”