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Khun Kay offers affordable vegetarian-friendly fare

Photo by Walden Pemantle | The Rice Thresher

Khun Kay Thai Cafe's chicken spring rolls

By Walden Pemantle, Thresher Staff     3/25/15 5:20am

Supartra Yooto and Kay Soodjai have experience when it comes to serving Asian food in the Houston area. The Thai sisters-in-law opened their first restaurant, a popular Chinese spot called the Golden Room, on Montrose in 1982. When it came time to renovate in 2008, they simply tore it down and returned to their roots with the “fast casual” Thai restaurant Khun Kay. The website claims the restaurant offers “most of the Golden Room’s menu with the same superb quality, but with reduced prices.” With pad thai as cheap as $7 a plate and a plate of excellent curry for only $8, reduced prices are certainly a plus. But beyond the low prices, Khun Kay’s extensive vegetarian menu and rotating list of specialties set it far above other counter-service Asian eateries. 

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 Most of Khun Kay’s strength lies in its sauces. Appetizers like the chicken spring rolls and pan-fried pork dumplings are fairly standard, but are pushed to the next level by the pungent peanut sauce and chili oil accompanying them. Nearly all the sauces and soups can be ordered with adjusted spice levels ranging from mild, to hot, to “Thai hot,” which showcases the authentic, though sometimes overwhelming, heat of Thai cooking. The tom yum soup, which comes seasoned with kaffir lime leaves and shrimp for only $4, does an especially good job taking advantage of the adjustable heat, providing less-adventurous diners with a mild but genuine take on the soup.

A number of traditional noodle, curry and stir-fry preparations are available with tofu, beef, pork, shrimp or chicken as entrees. The noodles and stir-fries will please those looking for the usual Thai specialties like pad thai or drunken noodles for a good price. The best selections, however, come from the specials and curry sections, which offer a range of traditional dishes with occasional left-field twists, like spicy mint chicken or crackling fried cod. The red curry complements its rich coconut flavors with aromatic traces of Thai chilies and lemongrass. The green curry also features a decadently rich and creamy sauce cut with a restrained spice that gives the dish a superb balance. For a more unusual curry, the massaman curry, a particular specialty of Khun Kay’s, trades the coconut-milk-and-chili formula for a sweet nutty flavor, and includes chunks of potatoes, carrots and pineapple. The heaviness of the sauces is excellent for vegetable and vegetarian protein pairings. While the menu does include a handful of vegetarian specialties like cashew vegetables, basil eggplant and larb (imitation duck), a plate of any curry with Khun Kay’s delicate fried tofu certainly makes for a satisfying vegetarian meal.

Compared to the rest of the menu, the desserts are a bit simple and limited, but all are at least consistent and characteristically cheap. The coconut ice cream is a definite standout. With a light, icy texture and a taste that centers more on the flavor of coconut milk than the more commonly used coconut meat, it makes a pleasantly light ending to a meal likely filled with heavier curries and noodle dishes.

In aiming for a casual and inexpensive yet authentic Thai experience, Yooto and Soodjai have certainly hit their mark. At worst, Khun Kay’s food is no less tasty than any average Asian restaurant, and at best, it delivers delicious vegetarian-friendly cooking for extremely reasonable prices.

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