What is it exactly that attracts us to the flavors of Thai cuisine? Perhaps it's the subtle language of the spices, the enigmatic lure of curries or the dietary benefits centered around fresh seafood and vegetables.
Thailand's cuisine is a fusion of influences: the searing flavor of its famous chilies introduced by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century, neighboring India to the west and China to the north as well as nearby Burma, Laos and Malaysia. In addition, religious disciplines — such as the strict vegetarianism of some Buddhist sects — have helped shape Thai cooking styles and philosophy.
While heat from chilies is the most recognizable attribute of Thai cuisine, ideally it emphasizes the harmony of hot and cool, salty and sour, pungent and sweet. Although we might be familiar with the basic ingredients of Thai cooking — peanuts, fish sauce, ginger, coconut milk, kaffir lime and chile — most Thai restaurants in America have given in to alteration and often merge into a generic version with emphasis on the sweetness (the element that most attracts sugar-loving Americans).
It's not unusual for an American to eat a meal in a Thai restaurant consisting of the stir-fried noodle dish Pad Thai, some marinated skewers of satay basted in coconut milk and peanut sauce (both considered snack foods in Thailand) and a red curry with white rice. It's the Thai equivalent of hot dogs, macaroni & cheese and pork chops smothered in gravy with a side of mashed potatoes all served at the same meal.
The menu at Kun Ying Thai Restaurant is another example of the Americanization of Thai cuisine — satisfying (we enjoyed most of the food we ate) but occasionally missing the gastronomic and cultural logic of its origin and the interpretive notes of the distinct ingredients that can make a Thai restaurant really special. The menu's selection of appetizers, soups, noodle dishes, curries, stir-fries and house specialties are without surprises, and the menu presentation is given the Chinese/ American menu treatment of numbers corresponding to pictures.
(Although helpful for something exotic and relieving servers with language barriers, do we really still need pictorial help with chicken wings, wonton soup and seven slightly varied versions of fried rice?)
I found the dishes inconsistent, and not all are successful. Remember your grandmother's advice to chew each bite 100 times? It's absolutely necessary with the Fried Fish Cakes ($5.95), a dozen rubbery patties of minced fish mixed with green beans, chili paste and kaffir lime leaves accompanied by a delightful sweet and sour sauce with bits of floating cucumber and peanuts. While lime was evident, other flavors were barely discernable — relying on the sauce to enliven them and make consumption less of a chore.
Steamed Mussels ($5.95) were much better. Served on the half shell with whole wilted basil leaves and a pungent Nam pla (a traditional Thai condiment made from fermented fish), the only criticism of a simply flavorful dish was from my guest, who preferred the room temperature mussels warmer.
Floral, fragrant and citrusy, kaffir lime leaves pair again with chili paste and coconut milk to season the Paneang Curry ($11.95) with broccoli. I frequently eat the similar version at Teak Thai, where Kun Ying's Chef Krisada performed curry magic for several years, but found this version to be less fiery. Spicing in Thai food isn't comforting in the way it is in, say, Cajun food with its straightforward back-kick of cayenne — rather, chile-induced heat is an instrument that can be delicately tuned while the Thai method of spicing is multi-layered and contradictory.
The flavor profile of a very good Thai cold dish such as Kun Ying's green Papaya Salad ($3) is bright and acerbic, a push and pull between lime and palm sugar, chilies and fruit and a great contrast to the robust flavors of the panaeng. This sort of assertiveness shows up again in the earthy Seafood Clay Pot ($15.95) brimming with shrimp, mussels, crab, squid and mung bean thread noodles, but the otherwise dark and savory noodle soup just missed by some overcooked seafood.
Kun Ying's owner, Viraporn Bunpetch (contrary to other printed material there's no relation to the owners of Teak Thai in Mount Adams), imported much of the dining room décor and trimmings directly from Bangkok to create a warm and inviting Thai restaurant, something missing in the downtown restaurant scene since Arloi Dee moved to Mason a couple of years ago.
But given the current climate of struggling restaurants and retail in downtown Cincinnati, I think Kun Ying's long-term success hinges on whether they can allow the elements of Thailand's exotic ingredients to represent some real culinary thought rather than endlessly repeated standards. ©
Kun Ying Thai Restaurant
Go: 713 Vine St., Downtown
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 2-10 p.m. Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of vegetarian options and several vegan
Accessibility: Front door and restrooms