Chef Ek Timrerk adds his Thai accent to Southern comfort

If Ek Timrerk hadn’t already worked at a restaurant named Spin Modern Thai, he could have used the moniker for his new venture.

The Uchi veteran and one of three founders of East Side King takes his Thai roots and Southern-fries them at Kin & Comfort, with the help of chef Bonnie Wright, a Richmond, Va., native with a résumé that includes East Side King and the stellar Alinea in Chicago and Maison Premiere in Brooklyn.

After mismanagement (not of Timrerk’s doing) led to the shuttering of the excellent but short-lived Spin in the summer of 2013, the imposing chef with the effervescent voice helped his younger sister, Titaya, reopen her eponymous restaurant on North Lamar Boulevard. Then he turned his focus to his own project.

The food court at Hana World Market on Parmer Lane doesn’t have the aesthetic appeal of most new restaurants, but the low overhead provides Timrerk an opportunity to experiment and develop his latest idea. Timrerk, who moved with his family to Central Texas in 1994, had initially considered returning to traditional Thai food but found inspiration in the idea of blending culinary cultures.

“That’s what I’m interested in doing — being more creative with my roots,” the 39-year-old Timrerk said recently at his sister’s restaurant.

Some of the motivation to explore different cuisines came from his mother, who lived in Germany for 15 years and has an aptitude for cooking an array of global food.

“She makes a mean goulash,” Timrerk said.

The first couple of months at Hana World Market posed some challenges, as Timrerk tried to convince the largely Asian clientele to trust his vision. But the market regulars, especially the younger generations, and Timrerk’s fans from Spin have learned to trust the chef.

And, tradition or no, who doesn’t like fried chicken? Timrerk marinates chicken thigh ($8) in a mixture of cilantro stems, various peppers and garlic and serves the juicy dark meat in a salty-sweet soy sauce mixture. Crisp strands of papaya salad accompany the chicken, along with green tomatoes that remain firm beneath their fried crusts.

The fryer gets a workout on a menu that includes russet taro hush puppies ($3) with textured shells concealing soft interiors and splashed with a tart plum sauce. The worlds of the South and Thailand collide in fried rice balls ($6) with savory sausage-specked white gravy beneath a dancing blanket of bonito flakes. Southern picnic staples deviled eggs get a Thai update with a palm-sugar-sweetened sauce drizzled across the three soft-boiled-then-fried eggs filled with spicy mayonnaise and topped with crispy leeks. The exteriors were rubbery and thin compared to the other fried items. But the crunch returned with bronzed catfish sticks ($8) in a soft fried casing and served with a galangal and pepper-infused curry.

Before you get the sense that everything is fried (OK, the beef tongue also gets a crispy sear, but the tender meat served with broccoli slaw and raisins is one of the best at Kin & Comfort), you should know that two of the menu’s standouts are the most refreshing dishes. Cabbage slaw is bathed in a bright coconut dressing punctuated by firm wedges of pickled beets and smoky knobs of crispy Brussels sprouts that may taste familiar to original East Side King fans.

The shrimp and grits epitomizes Kin & Comfort’s hybrid approach, as soft grits and slices of Virginia country ham sit at the bottom of a refreshing tom kha coconut soup enlivened with lime juice ($9). The mash-up works much better than an unsightly dish of mushy cheddar pasta shells in a swamp of flavorful but visually unappealing curried beef ($8).

You can’t break down the menu at Kin & Comfort with easy names like appetizers and entrées. You can compose a full meal with several of the cheaper items, or maybe one of the smaller plates (son-in-law eggs) with one of the bigger offerings (fried catfish sticks). But the most filling and most expensive menu item has the heft and flavor to make a meal unto itself.

It also serves as a great representation of the East-meets-West ethos driving and inspiring Timrerk and Wright. A dense meatloaf ($10), packed like a terrine and piqued with Thai chilies and spices, is pan-seared to order and crowned with creamy swirls of mashed potatoes, tangy pickled Dr. Seussian mushrooms and ribbons of carrots.

As Timrerk’s mother says of the rest of her son’s inventive cooking, “It’s interesting and it tastes good.”

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