If there were a theme to Dallas restaurant openings in 2019, it was this: Good food comes in small dining rooms.
Ka-Tip Thai Street Food seats barely more than 20 customers: There are three tables for four, two tables for two and a communal, picnic-style setup for a larger group. And yet the space is never full, despite serving probably the best Thai food in Dallas city limits.
The married duo of YuYee Sakpanichkul Kaiho and George Kaiho has been planning to open Ka-Tip for years. At first, the plan was to create a more upscale restaurant with wine and liquor to pair with chef’s tastings and elaborately inventive dishes. But as Dallas grew more casual, restaurants such as Khao Noodle Shop blazed a trail as small, approachable homes for bold flavors. The Kaihos saw that example and decided to follow it.
On our first visit, our party of four watched the only other customers leave, then brought the kitchen back to life by ordering every single appetizer. Colorful paper trays arrived like tiny, delicious parade floats. Gyao grob are fried wontons, folded around hard-boiled quail eggs ($5). They superficially resemble crab Rangoon, but cooked to order, with darker skins and a filling that’s not cloyingly sweet. There’s a drizzle of chile pepper sauce over the top, too.
There are pork and shrimp dumplings, five to a $7 order, tightly packed with a meaty filling that’s enlivened by the crunch of diced water chestnuts. There are fried, veggie-filled spring rolls ($5 for three). And there are “salad rolls,” a term Ka-Tip uses to refer to butterflied shrimp, tofu, lettuce and herbs rolled in rice paper ($6 for two). The salad rolls are minty, impeccably executed and irresistible when dunked into the accompanying spicy dipping sauce.
More of America’s restaurants need menu sections called “Spicy Salads.” Of course, for that to happen, our customers will need to understand that “salad” doesn’t always mean a bowl of lettuce.
It’s a particularly complicated term in the context of Southeast Asian cooking, which has entire genres of dishes that consist of warm, cooked things that have been mixed together. They’re not necessarily stir fried, but they’re not a salad, either. Except we don’t have a word for this type of dish; so that’s what we call it.
Anyway, this is a long way of saying that Ka-Tip Thai has “Spicy Salads” like nam tok moo, a combination of chopped and crisped pork with such strong, punchy herbs as culantro (not to be confused with cilantro) and mint ($10). It’s just about the fiercest dish on the menu.
New menu items are still being added, almost weekly. But, occasionally, we’ve seen items disappear, like on a recent return visit when the appetizer section had shrunk from five dishes to four. More is yet to come, including a promise of desserts.
One recent addition is tom yum moo sub, the famous spicy-sour noodle soup, which Ka-Tip prepares with ground pork and fish balls ($12). Every Thai restaurant in town has some form of tom yum, usually bright orange with a pre-made seasoning mix. The nearly clear broth at Ka-Tip hums with the deep sourness of lemongrass and lime, the meaty heft of pork and seafood, and the heat of fresh chile pepper slices that cling onto noodles like little climbers on a cliff face.
The soup comes in a huge portion, brimming with pork and studded with balls of both fish and shrimp meat. (The shrimp balls are yellow.) It’s both sleep-inducingly heavy and energetically vibrant from all that spice, lime and tongue-searing sourness. Afterward, I wanted to take a nap and have fierce, combative dreams.
Another dish featuring big, bold flavor is the green curry ($12). It looks like a small bowl, and it’s served with a mound of rice that seems disproportionately big. But this curry is a feast for the senses: thin slices of small, round Thai eggplant, the aroma of Makrut lime leaves, tender chicken, a gentle current of spice.
There is, naturally, pad Thai, the dish that won a national contest in the 1930s and has since come to define a whole cuisine in the eyes, and bellies, of American diners. The discussion around pad Thai is almost as complex as the dish itself, because many versions in the United States are sweetened, which has led to a backlash from American foodies who’ve deemed the dish “inauthentic.”
That backlash misses the point, of course. There are as many ways to make pad Thai as there are ways to make meatloaf or salsa verde.
Ka-Tip’s way, at $14, is loaded with fried egg and perfectly tender shrimp, which home cooks know is a deft bit of time management. The flavors are admirably balanced — while this is the least spicy main on the menu, it’s neither sweet nor syrupy — and in case a diner disagrees, little mounds of chile pepper flakes and ground peanut are perched on the side of the plate, waiting to be stirred in.
There’s still room for growth here. George Kaiho, who is also the soft-spoken lead bartender at Jettison, thinks that when the restaurant’s liquor license arrives, Ka-Tip may begin offering adventurous, one-night-only tasting menus, much like Misti Norris does at Petra and the Beast. The restaurant might reserve a weeknight for an appointment-only procession of off-menu specials and expertly chosen white wines.
That’s a vision to look forward to. It’s also even more evidence of the blurring line between high-end and casual dining in Dallas. One of our city’s hallmarks now is the way our best chefs step so nimbly from one end of the spectrum to the other.
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One of our other hallmarks, for many years, was a deficit of good Thai food. Part of the problem was simple demographics; our Laotian community is far bigger, and many of Dallas’ best Thai restaurants, such as Ly Food Market in Oak Cliff, were Lao restaurants in disguise. Even now, the best Thai food in the area is far out in the northernmost suburban reaches, at Spice Thai Cafe in Allen.
Ka-Tip helps change that picture. It’s another step forward for diverse, casual excellence in downtown Dallas food. It’s an endearing underdog success story from local industry veterans. And its soups are perfect winter-weather foods. What’s not to love?
Ka-Tip Thai Street Food, 1011 S. Pearl Expressway, Suite 190. 214-238-2232, katipthaidallas.com. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.