At once a serious restaurant and a seriously cool place to hang out, Khong River House manages what few others in South Beach have. While it’s hip and trendy with a delightful atmosphere, it’s neither overpriced nor afflicted with attitude.
Owner John Kunkel and his 50 Eggs group have proven their versatility with quesadillas (Lime Fresh), fried chicken (Yardbird) and now the complex, flavorful and little-explored cuisine of Northern Thailand, reaching into Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. The name derives from the Mekong or Khong River they share. And while there are dishes here that have rarely been seen in this country, there is a rainbow of appealing flavors for adventurous and timid palates alike.
Service is exemplary. The young, able staffers are perky tour guides to the region, warning of dangerous curves and highlighting stunning vistas.
They move with ease in the former Miss Yip just off Lincoln Road, now transformed into rustic Asian farmhouse space with double-story ceilings layered with corrugated zinc panels and strung with bare bulbs and wicker birdcages. Booths, butcher-block tables and private dining nooks comfortably accommodate couples or large parties.
At the bar, six levels of liquor bottles create a kaleidoscopic effect of shimmering, jewel-colored glass. The cocktails take inspiration from the food with ingredients like muddled banana, mango, lemon grass, papaya, coconut water, coriander and turmeric. More than three dozen gins from around the globe add depth to the experience.
When it comes to the food, one word of caution: Take seriously the bright red chiles that sprout up in dishes from salads to crispy prawns. Let me reiterate: If the menu or server uses the word “spicy,” they mean it. The Thai team headed by executive chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn (known as Chef Bee) has been adjusting the heat index for local tastes, but the fire-averse should proceed with care.
Salads are as colorful as confetti with fresh, bright flavors and textures layered with sweet, salty and sour elements. A favorite is the green papaya salad, crunchy threads of flesh tossed with chewy dried shrimp, toasted peanuts and plump heirloom tomato halves. Unless you come with a crowd to share the large serving, consider ordering the sticky chicken wings, which comes with a more manageable portion.
Thai tofu salad with tiny crisps of cubed bean curd is another bouquet of flavors, with slivers of cucumbers, tomato, onion and cilantro. Equally compelling is the earthy pla goong, with bite-size bits of poached Key West shrimp seasoned with mint, cilantro, lemon grass, chili paste and tangy lime scooped into slightly bitter endive leaves.
Buns stuffed with such delicacies as house-made sausage and scrambled eggs or plump nuggets of pork belly with cucumber and cilantro are more reasons to celebrate.
But perhaps it is the noodle dishes that are the most welcome. A pho-like boat-noodle broth thrills with its five-spice-like flavor, fish sauce, beef blood, fried garlic and three types of soy sauce with meatballs. So, too, the soothing chicken and coconut curry egg noodle dish topped with crunchy noodles.
The many vegetarian options include a shimmering, emerald green bowl of stir-fried Chinese broccoli that may be the best dish I’ve had this year.
Luscious, slow-roasted pork shoulder with an earthy soy zing and chewy-crispy-sticky Burmese-style beef jerky are among the hearty meats.
Desserts include an angelic, individual coconut cake, golden on the outside, tender and crumbly within, filled with a subtle ginger chutney. Alongside is a scoop of lusciously creamy ice cream with tiny strands of chewy coconut. Passion fruit panna cotta and chocolate trifle with caramel cream are equally alluring.
I suggest coming with a crowd to share more of the explosive flavors. I’ve been here four times and have been thrilled with every bite.