5937 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94121
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An ornately decorated, traditional Thai restaurant with above-average food and a unique menu, complete with familiar and unfamiliar items. Transcends stereotypes of the typical Thai meal to become a memorable dining experience.
Food quality and service aren't as strong as they used to be; reasonably pricey appetizers, soups, and a la carte rice may put off some people.
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San Francisco Thai
"Local Thai fans and restauranteurs should know of this place's existence, even with its problems; the authentic, traditional environment will remain in customers' minds for years."
To the extent once-per-year visitors could be considered "regulars" at a given restaurant, we were regular customers at San Francisco's Khan Toke Thai House - an upscale, traditional Thai restaurant located in the Richmond district, quite far from most of the city's action. After a string of expensive, unimpressive meals in the city years ago, we sought out the area's reputedly best Thai place and found Khan Toke, the sort of restaurant that looked as if it had been there for years. We've visited annually thereafter in early January, letting it serve as the group discussion and debate venue for iLounge's annual Best of Show Awards. But this year's visit was most likely our last.
The issue wasn't Khan Toke's decor, which is so impressively ornate and traditional that it's hard to believe; wood walls, ceilings, railings, tables, and carvings are quite literally everywhere inside, the multiple rooms feeling about as distinct from Western New York's Thai restaurants as is possible. Shoes must be removed at the door and stored by a doorman during your visit; rather than chairs, patrons sit on cushions atop custom-built recessed flooring. Waiters - typically aged professionals - stand high above you as they serve, leaning over to deposit dishes on your table. The lighting is dim and dramatic, which explains both the intimate ambience and our grainy photos. Khan Toke is as much about the experience as the food.
We were always pretty impressed by the large, half-familiar, half-unfamiliar menu, which was populated with everything from satays ($7) to salads ($6-$8), and seafood dishes ($9.50-$13) to soups ($8-$11.75), depending on how closely you wanted to dive into it, with plenty of old standbys - sweet Pad Thai noodles ($8.75), spicy Tom Yum soup ($9, here, called Tom Yam), and the like - for those who wanted the basics. Though the appetizer, soup, and entree prices had an unusual degree of overlap, the high soup prices, for instance, were justified by mandatory three-person servings, a pricing style that continued with a la carte steamed rice ($1.50). Someone - you - had to pay for all that wood.
Historically, the food was pretty close to great. Thai curries, numerous in color and entirely distinct from the better-known Indian version, were sure-fire winners, and prawn entrees were standouts, as well. Any chance we had at leaving a little hungry was quashed by a coconut ice cream and fried banana dessert, topped with a smiley face of nuts, that always seemed to hit the spot.
During this year's visit, our group ordered a typically ambitious array of dishes: the Sur Rong Hy Crying Tiger, a sliced, marinated beef appetizer, a separate plate of grilled, crab-stuffed appetizer prawns, a Chicken Satay, and entrees ranging from deep fried, curried red snapper to a plate of Fire! Fire! Fire! seafood, ordered "Thai hot," and many others - our small table seemed perpetually full. Yet unlike previous years, while all of the items were good, none seemed to be truly great. Some were obviously off, the snapper a little less than totally fresh and crispy, the prawns a little bland, and the Fire! dish not exactly a three-alarm blaze. Even the coconut ice cream and fried bananas fell a bit flat; we surely enjoyed our rounds of Singha more than the food that night. Similarly, our favorite waiter, an older gentleman who delivered old school, personalized service and charm, was nowhere to be found - the first time we'd missed him in years of visiting. The night's replacements were okay, but not equally attentive.
Would we go back to Khan Toke? Under different circumstances, perhaps, but the trade show that annually brought us back to San Francisco as a group will effectively cease to exist after this year, and as tourists rather than residents, the Richmond location isn't especially convenient for less important gatherings when we're in town. The looks and strong food of this interesting Thai restaurant were enough to rate as memorable in the past, and draw us back despite the distance, but we'd generally expect better than we got on our last visit. So why even mention it on Buffalo Chow? Western New York Thai fans and restauranteurs should know of this place's existence, even with its problems; there's a lot to be learned from Khan Toke's approach to creating an authentic, traditional environment, namely its ability to remain in customers' minds for years almost regardless of the food.