Photography by Karlo Cadang
Let’s get things out in the open. This new Thai diner in Poblacion is not a place where you can get your fill of Tom Yum or Pad Thai. Look closer and you’ll see a not-so discreet Pad Thai Free Zone signage near the mini bar area. “We try to stray away from the traditional Thai food you’ll always find abroad,” says co-owner Daniel Mabanta, whose well-loved brainchild Senor Pollo already has eight branches in the country. Carlo Cuunjieng, who also co-owns the new eatery, is keen on calling it their no-holds barred take on the Thai carinderia and it shows.
Once you spot the bright pink wall lurking and inviting you in, don’t hesitate to step inside its beaded curtains. It’s like being transported into a portal bringing you to Bangkok’s crazy streets, where you’ll be greeted with a wave of kitsch, psychedelia, and retro.
Left and right, there are movie posters in Thai script, pop culture memorabilia, and portraits of the country’s family monarch for good measure. Local instrumental Thai music playing on the speakers to set the mood, plastic chairs with pops of color, and floral tablecloths reminiscent of your favorite provincial carinderia round out the no-frills BKK vibe they’re going for.
Of course, the food here is the clear star. It’s no secret that Thai street food is among the best in the world and this is what their menu seeks to celebrate. Specifically zoomed in on the fares found in the Northern region of Isan, it is the food of the Thai masses that Khao Khai Thai Chicken House is trying to capture with every plate. You won’t find any touch of elevated Asian cuisine here, just purely accessible and straightforward good food.
In the Northern Thai dialect, Khao Khai means “chicken rice” (well actually, just Gai or Kai, the ‘h’ is purely for aesthetic reasons), and perhaps it is this namesake of theirs that should convince you to order this dish. Their Gai Tod is street cart style fried chicken at its finest hour, managing to never lose its thunderous crunch and juicy meat with every bite. Sprinkled with garlic flakes and served with an option of two dipping sauces playing on notes of spice and acid, the dish gives you an option to further customize its flavor to your own liking.
And since we love chicken in all its forms, their take on the charcoal chicken – the Gai Yang – is another easy favorite. And we’re told the crowd loves it too. With just the right amount of the skin’s char and double the succulence of the meat, pairing it with sticky rice becomes a little bit of heaven on earth.
Another chicken version you’ll love at Khao Khai Thai is their heaving plate of Victory Wings. Marinated in fish sauce and herbs, the dish is packed with flavor on flavor. There’s a feisty heat married with the aromatic, and yes, another kick of that distinct sourness Thai food is known for. Go ahead and order a Plate of Garlic Green Beans for your veggie intake. Stir-fried in savory soy, the umami is strong with this one. Really, it makes for addictive spoonfuls. Pair both with some classic Chang while you’re at it.
The Drunken Spaghetti is neither Pad Thai nor pasta – in fact, it straddles the fine line between both. We could swear on its potently sweet and sour star-anise taste, which is a flavor profile Thai cuisine is known for having. Theirs has a sunny side on top, which we equally love for its crisp edges and runny center.
Another dish on the menu that features a crisp sunny side-up egg on the side is their Moo Krob Kra Pao. It’s loosely translated as fragrant stir-fried pork belly with chillies, fish sauce, and holy basil for the unacquainted – another comforting plate you’ll find here. The Som Tam is a specialty of theirs which boasts of fresh hand-cut papaya and tomato slices, all doused in a surpisingly extra fiery sauce. It had us tear up and cry, literally.
As you feast happily on their filling and savory meals, don’t forget to have a refreshing dose of Thai Milk Tea by your side to calm the robust heat and herbs lingering in your tastebuds, which you can actually spike with liquor to turn it into a cocktail.
True to its word, Khao Khai Thai Chicken House is the soul of BKK – laidback with an element of grit, accessible, and honestly raw as can be. And when placed in a neighborhood whose demographic has people from all walks of life with a red light district feel at an urban pace, the compelling formula becomes complete.
Khao Khai Thai Chicken is located at 5772 Ebro St. Barangay Poblacion, Makati City, Manila and is open Mondays to Thursdays from 11a.m. to 1a.m., and Fridays to Sundays from 11a.m. to 2a.m. If you want more diner recommendations along Makati, check out this next story!