Kwanjai Thai

June 8, 2006


To be honest, we here at Short Exact don’t really fit the hipster profile, nor were we a member of a fraternity in college. And, in fact, we don’t even own a single striped shirt. Yet, nonetheless, even we, in our constant and relentless search for culinary greatness, from time to time find ourselves in that unsavory enclave more commonly known as the Marina, as we did on this occasion to pay a visit to Kwanjai Thai.

Unfortunately, culinary greatness we did not find. To be sure, Kwanjai is decent; it’s not bad, as long as you don’t look too far beneath the surface into the subtleties. But the subtleties are what distinguish the notable Thai restaurants from the mediocre ones.


Kwanjai opened in the Marina just a few months ago, started by owner Matt Kirchstein, who’s also part-owner of Butter in South of Market. The interior of the restaurant is a long, narrow rectangle, with two columns of tables lined up in neat, orderly “train station” style. The decor is more modern, rather than traditional, and that is in keeping with the preparation of the food as well. Kwanjai describes itself as “modern Thai cuisine,” in that newer, contemporary twists are added to familiar Thai dishes.

Short Exact started off our meal with a tried and true favorite: the rice paper roll that included all the usual ingredients (vermicelli, bean sprouts, mint, etc.) but also featured salmon sashimi:


The roll was served with a strong balsamic dipping sauce that was blended with basil, mint, and wasabi. The sauce was tasty, and complemented the vegetarian components of the roll quite well (and the mint resonated nicely), but it unfortunately overpowered the subtler flavor of the salmon sashimi. The sashimi was fresh, but not of stellar quality.

Really, the unique touch to this dish is the addition of the sashimi, and so this is the ingredient that, under a different execution, could have made the dish exceptional. However, the reality is that the pieces of sashimi included were miniscule, and it was difficult to taste them until the residual taste of the balsamic had cleared. The sashimi mostly provided adornment and a little color, but didn’t have a strong enough presence in either the flavor or the texture. It really was a lost opportunity, as the sashimi should have made a more pronounced effect on this dish than it did.

For our entree, Short Exact ordered a curry with sauteed soft shell crab, a dish that included a standard array of onions and peppers:


The curry was slightly sweet, but neither deep nor rich – nor was it really spicy at all. The effect of the flavor was decent, but mild and too short-lived. Both the soft shell crab and vegetables were reasonably fresh, but what we found frustrating was that the dish didn’t make it clear why this curry and that crab were put together in the first place. The mild curry did not overpower the natural flavors of the crab, true: but it did not highlight or emphasize them either. The ingredients in the dish didn’t blend and meld quite right; they didn’t complement each other. It tasted as though the ingredients were just tossed together.

We’re being somewhat picky here about the subtleties, but the pickiness is justifed because of the complex flavors that really well-prepared Thai food can exhibit. To be honest, Short Exact would be willing to return here and try other dishes, to see if those are prepared better, or if the observations that we’ve made above also carry through to some of their other selections. Overall, I would say this isn’t a bad spot if you’re in the area, and it will certainly satisfy a Thai craving. Kwanjai has a good variety of both appetizers and entrees, and they have some creative ideas on how to add flair to familiar recipes. The restaurant is clean, and the service is friendly and prompt. Nonetheless, while Kwanjai does provide a somewhat different experience from more standard Thai restuarants, it simply doesn’t match up to the complex flavors found at some other Bay Area Thai joints.



3242 Scott Street (between Chestnut St. and Lombard St.)
San Francisco, CA 94123
Phone: 415.563.1285
Hours: Sun-Thurs 11 am-11 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-12 midnight.

Cuisine: Thai
Neighborhood: Marina/Cow Hollow

How to get there: Kwanjai is within a few blocks walking distance of Muni lines 22, 28, 30, 41, 43, 45, and 76.


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