2188 Kensington Ave, Amherst, NY
Web: King & I
Rating: [learn more]
Some of the area's best Thai food, with a wide variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, including great satay, duck, squid, and beef; generally very solid menu items.
Slightly pricey and with an authentic Thai spicing skew; parking can be a pain. While still good, some menu items aren't served at restaurant's historic peak of deliciousness.
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"On the right street elsewhere in Western New York's suburbs, The King and I could easily pack in twice the people thanks to added parking convenience and seating capacity."
The Beatles proved that there was life, and arguably still greatness, after a split-up, but few would rate the cumulative individual efforts of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr as highly as the catalog they assembled while together. For years, Western New York's Thai restaurant scene had its equivalent of The Beatles in a small Harlem Road restaurant called The King and I: a "family" of talented cooks and wait staff had relocated from Rochester and Thailand to Buffalo, instantly giving the area a literally unparalleled opportunity to enjoy authentic Thai cooking. Forced by their landlord to relocate, and then beset by infighting, The King and I split into two restaurants: a same-named, similarly run location on Kensington (between Main Street and Harlem), and Taste of Thai on Hertel Avenue. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but The King and I's Amherst locale makes it more convenient for suburbanites, while Taste of Thai is easier for Buffalo denizens to reach.
The Story: Having traveled to Bangkok and done our very best to eat well while there, say nothing of the numerous visits we've paid to other Thai restaurants foreign and domestic, we can say with confidence that we would have put the original King and I restaurant up against any Thai place in the world. The dishes weren't just good - they were more consistently impressive than those at Buffalo's first Thai restaurant, Jasmine Thai - and the wait staff, children of the chefs and owner, varied from profoundly friendly and attentive to sophisticated and polished on a truly first class scale. Thanks to a series of unfortunate events, including the untimely demise of one chef and the departure of the other to Hertel's Taste of Thai, today's King and I isn't a world-beater on the scale of Las Vegas's Lotus of Siam or Ithaca, N.Y.'s unrelated Taste of Thai, but it's still very strong. The remaining staff consists of the "family's" more jovial side; the original owner's kids have successfully taken on their parents' cooking and management roles, now enjoying a level of popularity that many local restaurants would envy: even with more floor space than the original location, there always seems to be a full house at dinner time, and possibly a short wait. Prices have gone up a little while portion sizes haven't, a point that makes Jasmine a competitive option.
Highs: Besides the service, through which The King and I rewards regular customers with warmer, friendlier attention, all of this restaurant's dishes are at least good, and some are great. The Chicken or Pork Satay ($6), skewers of fresh meat offset by peanut and vinegared vegetable dipping sauces, always receives properly mild marination and grilling, though its peanut sauce isn't as chunky and lip-smacking as the best we've tried. Curries, such as the Geang Mud Sa Mun ($11) yellow chicken curry shown here, tend to be lighter on the coconut milk and even more generously loaded with vegetables than at Jasmine, which is probably healthier, though not as likely to make a lasting impression as the competitor's sweeter, meatier versions. A King & I Seafood Salad ($15) is a mountain of shrimp, squid, bean thread noodles and onions, drizzled in lime juice, spicy chilis and lemongrass.
Jasmine's renditions of classics, such as the noodle dish Pad Thai ($9+, here called Pud Thai), the spicy Beef Salad ($11) and Fresh Spring Rolls ($4.50, known elsewhere as Summer Rolls), are all entirely competent and enjoyable on any visit. The marinated, fried Squid Tentacles ($8, shown in the fish bowl) are a delicious guilty pleasure, and the Ped Prig Pow ($16), a roasted duck in dark brown chili sauce with cashews, onions, and baby corn, remains one of our all-time favorites, though the flavor isn't as sharp as it was prior to the restaurant's relocation. Additionally, vegetarian dishes are numerous here, as at least two dozen items on the menu can be prepared with tofu or merely without meat.
Lows: Spice-sensitive diners should really emphasize their need for mild dishes before ordering; there are unspiced options, but dishes traditionally served with some spice are hard to completely emasculate here. Prices at The King and I skew higher than at Jasmine or Taste of Thai, despite the fact that the portion sizes generally aren't overwhelming, the location isn't great, and the small, crowded parking lot can be a hassle - all challenges that a small, family-owned restaurant has to face, complicated years ago by the owners' forced relocation from their original storefront.
The Verdict: On the right street elsewhere in Western New York's suburbs, The King and I could easily pack in twice the people thanks to added parking convenience and seating capacity. That said, it's hard to knock a restaurant that has done a very good job of serving authentic Thai cuisine for many years, and if our harshest criticism is that we want more, that means the owners are doing a comparatively great job.