One punishingly blustery day, I stepped inside Fremont's Kin Len Thai Night Bites and found myself standing in a colorful den stacked with bright, cushy pillows. A Thai film was being projected onto the wall. As I pored over the menu, I was offered a demitasse of complimentary betel-leaf tea, a thoughtful detail that charmed me instantly.
According to its website, Kin Len's name translates to "eat-play." Owners Jennifer "Jenny" Politanont and Saravut Nawasangarun—who also run the popular Isarn Thai Soul Kitchen restaurants in Kirkland and Lynnwood—were inspired by both the nightclubs and late-night bars of Thailand. Before they moved to the United States, Politanont and Nawasangarun ran two Italian restaurants in Bangkok and worked in the entertainment industry there (Politanont as an actress/singer/model and Nawasangarun as an actor).
Their restaurants have a theatrical flair befitting two former actors, feeling almost like movie sets at times. After you place your order up front at Kin Len, you're escorted to your seat in the main dining area, which is something like an amalgam of a trendy nightclub, an Epcot theme park version of a Thailand street market, and the Rainforest Cafe. Atmospheric beats throb in the background, and a splashy hot-pink neon sign glows in the dark above a bar fashioned to resemble a street food stall. Festive bunting is strung across the ceiling, and gold tigers glitter on the wall.
Thailand's bars are known for their craveable drinking food, the kind of crispy, chewy, crunchy, fatty, snacky bites that make booze sing. Almost no sooner than I was seated, my cocktail materialized along with another surprise—a little dish of complimentary peanuts seasoned with tingly lime leaf and Thai spices, which provided a salty, munchy foil to the refreshingly herbal Tom Yum Fizz.
Slightly fibrous, sticky-sweet threads of hand-pulled caramelized beef—chewy and reminiscent of jerky, served with a mound of sticky rice—made for an eminently satisfying drinking snack, while banana-blossom fries (sort of like the Thai answer to the bloomin' onion) found the fleshy, slender, artichoke-like flowers of the plant battered and fried to a crackly crisp, and served with a sweet chili sauce for dipping. Unfortunately, the batter-to-blossom ratio was a little overzealous, resulting in few bites of meaty blossom and a lot of empty bites of the crunchy batter.
Other dishes continued to be a study in textures, like the chewy curls of beef tongue with a house-made Thai sriracha dipping sauce. One of Kin Len's most popular dishes is the two-in-one pork, so named because it presents pork in two different preparations: silky, fall-apart stewed pork hock and crispy fried pork belly, served with briny pickled mustard greens and a hard-boiled egg.
I'd come back just for the obsessively good boat noodles—rice noodles swimming in a dark, aromatic, complex broth, with pork cracklings, morning glory, thin slices of beef, meltingly tender tendon, meatballs, tripe, and tongue. The deeply flavored soup scratched a primordial itch for something savory and would be a welcome rainy-day lunch just on its own.
All in all, Kin Len is a savvy, serviceable, cleverly designed restaurant that manages to be both efficient and fun at the same time. Just like the name suggests, it's playful and full of surprises.