Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
There are a lot of reasons you probably haven't tried kBird, purveyor of Little Rock's most delicious and authentic Thai cuisine: It spent its first two and a half years as a food truck that rarely moved beyond a hidden parking lot off an alley that runs parallel to Beechwood Street in Hillcrest. Richard Glasgow, kBird's chef and owner, is as amiable and funny and interesting to talk to as you might expect anyone who quit practicing law to cook Thai food would be, but unlike a lot of his peers in the food truck and start-up restaurant world, he's not a self-promotional wizard on social media. When he moved kBird to a brick-and-mortar location in November, his initial announcement that he was open came via a YouTube video of The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" ("the bird, bird, bird, bird is the word ...") posted without commentary on Facebook.
The restaurant's new home is only slightly less hidden than its old one: It's in a space previously occupied by Palette Catering on the corner of Tyler and Woodlawn in an otherwise residential part of Hillcrest. There's no sign on the small building, aside from a piece of paper taped to the door with Thai writing and hours in military time on it.
It doesn't get much more traditional restaurant-y inside, either. There, you'll find a handful of mismatched tables and an L-shaped bar in front of a window and the large, open-air kitchen. A handwritten menu hangs over a cardboard box that's sometime marked "cash register" and occasionally has an abacus resting on top of it.
Navigate that — which isn't difficult, just different — and you can't go wrong. We've cooked enough Thai food to know that ingredients and technique are what separate pedestrian from excellent fare. You can use brown sugar, but hand-grated palm sugar is better. You can use onion, but shallots are better. You can use ginger, but galangal is better. Glasgow makes all the "better" choices at kBird (including refusing to use a food processor; a pair of massive mortar and pestles sit on an island in the kitchen).
So dishes like Pad Thai ($10, or $9 with tofu) and Thai Fried Rice ($10 with chicken, $9 with tofu) become not just comfort food you get because they're greasy and egg-y, but the comfort food you get because they're the best versions of those dishes you've ever had. Ditto for the Red Curry ($10 with catfish, $9 with tofu, $8 with veggies) and the Green Curry Pork ($10) — familiar fare that stands out among other Thai cuisine in Central Arkansas because the curry pastes are made in house, the vegetables (longbean, Thai eggplant, Thai pumpkin) are authentic and the meat is high quality and always local.
After you've gotten your bearings, we recommend following a course that's served us well recently: Order the most exotic thing on the menu. Earlier this week that meant the Dtom Yam Goong ($7 for 16 oz., $10 for 32 oz.), a complexly flavored gulf shrimp soup built on a chicken and pork stock and flavored with chilies, fish sauce, Thai chili sauce, lime juice, galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves (don't eat any of those latter three). It gave us the same sense of restorative power that Vietnamese pho often does. In December our ordering plan directed us to the Hor Mohk Curry Catfish, banana leaves stuffed with catfish fillets, coconut cream, red curry paste, lime leaf, Thai basil and fish sauce and steamed. It was delightful — like a Thai tamale.
Back to this week's menu: The Khaao Soi Gai (Chiang Mai-style curried noodles with chicken) is described by kBird as "happiness in a bowl," and who could turn that down at lunch? The happiness derives from a drumstick and another (indefinable) chunk of chicken in this noodle-filled sweet and spicy red curry soup topped with cilantro and crispy-fried noodles. Don't worry how you'll eat the chicken: It falls off the bone with a little tug of your spoon, and the reward is a new, rare flavor that we suspect you'll only find at kBird. The sticky rice on the side just makes for more joy in the bowl.
Meanwhile, two of us decided to add two fried chicken wings ($3 per) to our two-entree order. They're listed under the snack portion of the menu after all. But two or three of these monsters from Falling Sky Farms — easily the biggest wings we've seen — could make a meal. Despite being stuffed, we gobbled up these wonderfully spiced and artfully fried morsels. Get them when you see them on the menu. They often sell out.
The restaurant's abbreviated hours stem from zoning restrictions placed on the space after a previous restaurant occupant somehow upset neighbors. Here's hoping they realize what a gem they have in that space now, and in the not-too-distant future Glasgow can petition to extend his hours a bit later into the evening. And maybe even serve beer.