Review: Kinara Thai Bistro

Kinara Thai Restaurant

Kinara Thai Bistro

It seems like there are hundreds of Thai restaurants in Portland, with little to differentiate them. Pasty noodles, dried out meat, and curry paste from a jar seem to be the norm. When I stumble across one that is actually good, I am always surprised. Kinara Thai Bistro, next to the Lincoln High athletic field in the Goose Hollow area of Portland, is one of those restaurants.

In Thai mythology, the name Kinara, comes from the fabled half-human half-bird that represents purity, mystery and excellence of character. According to their website, they have patterned the restaurant on those qualities: they support and use local and sustainable farms, use organic and natural ingredients as much as possible, and use corn oil-based compostable containers for their to-go items. These things alone set them above most Thai restaurants in Portland.

Kinara Duck Rolls

When I try a new Thai restaurant, there are a few dishes I always order as bellwethers to compare to other versions around town, but on my first visit, it was the things I haven’t seen before that caught my eye. For instance the Kinara Rolls; six large rolls consisting of a thin wrap brushed with a bit of hoison sauce, wrapped around crispy slices of roasted duck, cucumber, carrots, cilantro and scallions. The flavors are all bright and fresh and the textural interplay between the crispy duck and the other ingredients is just terrific. I have a friend that always makes fun of the judges on the original Iron Chef TV show. It’s a standing joke, and when she said, “It’s like a party on my tongue,” I burst out laughing. She was right though; it was a perfect example of the way a good Thai chef plays with ingredients to create interesting and unexpected juxtapositions of flavor and textures. Occasionally the wrap is a bit dry and the overall effect isn’t quite as good, but overall, this is always worth ordering ($9).

Encouraged, we ordered more food. As additional dishes arrived, we were impressed by the presentation. Instead of food being dumped onto the plate, care is taken to make sure everything looks nice. I’m not just talking carved vegetables, though they are used quite a bit. Here they tend to be supplemented with artful arrangements of ingredients.

Papaya Salad

Fresh Spring rolls were fairly typical ($4), but an order of fried dumplings put us back on track. They are described on the menu as “vegetarian dumplings with a saccharine soy sauce.” As saccharine generally means something cloyingly sweet, I think this is one of those terms that got lost in translation, as these were not really sweet at all. They are small, light dumplings, stuffed with crunchy vegetables. The real surprise is that even after the frying we could still taste the individual vegetables inside each dumpling. Nothing was oily, and the texture of the ingredients was still intact. For $5 you get about eight of them with a side of a fairly standard dipping sauce.

As I mentioned above, some dishes aren’t as good as others. An order of crispy rolls where well made, and perfectly fried, but the one time I tried them the oil left a bad aftertaste. I’d order them again, chalking it up to an aberration ($4). Other interesting appetizers include calamari chardonnay, described as thin sliced calamari sautéed with white wine, garlic, cilantro, and Masako ($9), steamed green mussels in a lemongrass and white wine broth ($9), or blue crab wontons with cream cheese ($9).

I tried their grilled beef salad, or nahm dtok, and found it to be the best I’ve had in Portland. The simple look of this Northern Thai salad belies its complexity, as it typically has a plethora of ingredients:  mixed greens, radicchio, carrots, onions, scallions, cucumbers, bell peppers, grilled sirloin, coriander, mint, and toasted rice. The dressing is a delicate balance of Thai flavors: salty, sweet and sour. If any of the components are overused, the entire salad is thrown off. Kinara’s beef is of excellent quality, a cut above most Thai restaurants: tender, moist, and just the right amount of fat. Everything works perfectly for a terrific salad on a warm night, and it’s a bargain at $10.

Though many people think it is an Americanized version of Thai food, Pat Thai is enjoyed throughout Thailand.  I’m always nervous with this dish, because it is another delicate balancing act. Often containing fifteen ingredients, many versions are off balance (usually the palm sugar) making the end result way too sweet, or it is just bland. The first time I had it at Kinara, I was blown away; the textures and flavors were the best I’ve ever had in the Portland area. Unfortunately, the second time I tried this dish, the noodles were a bit soggy and the flavors muted. It tasted like it had sat for a while in the pass-thru, which is quite possible, since they were slammed that night and only had one server. This one is a crapshoot, but I would definitely try it again ($9).


Mango Paradise

Mango Paradise

The Basil-chili pork is a winner. This is a simple wok dish of sustainably raised pork, sweet basil, bell peppers, garlic, and Thai chili, yet the end result is a rich, deep flavor. Like almost all the meat I’ve had at Kinara, the pork is moist and flavorful ($10). Another of my favorites is their drunken noodles, or Pad Kee Mao. It is found on almost every Thai menu, but this is the only version I have had that is anything like you get in Thailand. I always order it with beef; add fat rice noodles, basil, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, and Thai chili; did I mention garlic? Anyway, it’s great; you need to try this dish ($9).  Cashew nut chicken is better than average, but not outstanding. There are lots of pieces of natural chicken, roasted cashews, onions, scallions, carrots, and sweet chili paste. I’d like the sauce to be a bit brighter, but it is still a good dish ($10). I also enjoy “mango paradise”; sweet mango, chicken, cashews and veggies in a sweet-and-sour sauce. The dish looks good, surrounded by a ring of fresh broccoli and elaborately carved carrots. I had it twice; one time the chicken was overcooked, on my second visit it was just right. This is a dish that takes balance; too much mango it will be too sweet, same with the sauce. They got both just right ($12).


Grilled Prawns Salad

Grilled Prawns Salad

Curries usually come with a side of rice, and Kinara steps it up a notch by offering your choice of brown or jasmine. Panang curry is my standard, and Kinara’s version is made with pork, which is a nice change. The curry has a rich flavor, medium heat, and lots of complexity that builds as you eat ($9). Though the beef massasman is not quite as the version at Siam Society, it is a close second. The curry has the depth commonly associated with this dish, the beef and potatoes are tender, and the peanuts give it a nice textural highlight ($9). Their green curry didn’t do too much for me; I’ve had better at other places ($9).

Thai fried rice was flavorful, plentiful, and a bit lighter than most versions tend to be. It is a typical mix of tomatoes, carrots, onions, peas and egg. I like the way they leave the onions in fairly large pieces, which give a bit of textural contrast ($9).

Kinara has a large selection of lunch specials which average $8.00. For a dollar extra, you can add a garden salad or an appetizer; there’s also a punch card – buy five and get the sixth entrée free.

If there are any problems with Kinara, they are consistency and service. As I mentioned above, I’ve had the same dish turn out completely different over two nights. The restaurant is small, seating about 12 in each dining room. Though this makes it seem intimate, it is difficult for the a single server to work, and she occasionally gets overwhelmed. I think the same thing happens to the chef. I worry that the effect of a few positive reviews will overwhelm them; so be patient.

Despite a few issues, Kinara is my favorite Thai restaurant on the West side of the Willamette. On a good night, it is outstanding. Since it is an easy walk from the Pearl, it will be my regular stop for this type of food.

On a good night, an easy B+. Marked down for inconsistency.

  • Phone: (503) 227-5161
  • Address: 1126 SW 18th Ave, Portland OR. 97205
  • Hours: Mon-Thur 11am – 9:30pm, Fri 11am – 10pm, Sat 3pm – 10pm. Closed Sunday
  • Website: KinaraThai.com

Kinara Thai Bistro on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Global Greenie says

    You should round back up to three stars for choosing a name that doesn’t have an awful pun built in, such as Mai Thai or Appethaizing.

  2. nepdxer says

    This is the worst post you’ve ever put up Food Dude.
    It’s awful.
    Terrible.

    You know why?
    Because you’re dead on and now the cat is out of the bag.
    I’ll never be able to get a seat at Kinara again!

    This was supposed to be the west side’s best kept secret.

    Seriously, this really is the best Thai food in town. You under rated it in your stars. It’s a 3 1/2 not a 2 1/2.

  3. Leo says

    Food Dude,
    I don’t believe I could agree more with your assessment. I’ve had Kinara’s food three times, once under their former name/look (I forgot their old name, I believe it may have been Mai Thai) and now twice as Kinara. It has ranged from terrible to outstanding, and you’re completely spot-on about the pad thai, which is something my friend ALWAYS orders at Thai places. She always goes for that, and I usually from the curry, then we share a bit off each other’s plate to sample the different things. We had the spring rolls and they weren’t that great, and my interpretation is that the peanut sauce isn’t that great, and one of the sauces they serve with the food was abysmal (you know, in the little basket thing, the three sauces). One thing they did get right, which was surprising, was actually getting the amount of heat right- love it when you go to a Thai place and you say mild (maybe 2 peppers on a scale of 1-5) and it’s setting your mouth on fire. Whoops! I thought your two was a four!

    Anyways, they are quite inconsistent, and I believe their small space and lack of employees really kills them as well. Good review, and I’ll have to try that Basil-chili pork.

  4. says

    I agree that it is lack of employees that holds them back. Unfortunately, I don’t think they could fit more in the place. The other thing I forgot to mention, is that the owners seem incredibly nice. Very gracious, very accommodating

  5. Suds Sister says

    I live quite close to Kinara and have been quite a few times now. I haven’t been all that impressed, but maybe I am ordering wrong. The flavors to me seem dull and lack vibrancy. I’ll give them another try using your review as a cheat sheet.

    Dude, have you tried the place on SW Jefferson and SW 12th, Thai Palace? Like Kinara, they have some consistency issues, but more often than not they are a home run for us (sorry for the PGE park pun). The soups at Thai Palace sustained us this past long winter, as sis the specials. They are a frequent take-out option for us.

  6. Devlyn says

    Thanks for the write-up. Kinara’s been on the “wishlist” for places to eat for a while now, and with this, I’m definitely going to be moving it up. I’m so bored of over-sweetened Thai food, and am looking to kick it up. Plus, I love a good pad thai and haven’t had had any good rice noodles in PDX yet. Yum!

  7. mike thelin says

    Totally agree. Of the four Thai restaurants within walking distance from my house, this is by far the best. As the dining room is usually half-empty, I’m happy to see this review. This will help them greatly.

  8. says

    Yum. I ignored the bounty in my refrigerator and checked out Kinara instead. Pad Thai, Panang Curry, Crispy Rolls and Crab Wontons were all amazing. I really like the space too, super cozy in size, yet elegant and modern without the ridiculous prices usually associated with elegant and modern. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Garth Bernstein says

    We went last night and ordered the Kinara rolls, dumplings, drunken noodles with beef, and green curry. We were disappointed it was not as good as other thai restaurants, is it possible it was an “off” night? (It was on Monday).

    • says

      Like I said in the review, they definitely seem to have occasional bad days. I don’t go anywhere on Mondays, as that is generally the chef’s night off, so don’t know if that was the problem, but I’d give them another try.

      I haven’t been a fan of the green curry.

  10. Megan says

    We ate at Kinera the other day during lunch and were disappointed after reading such a good review. We ordered the Pad Thai and the Pork Penang curry. The Pad Thai seemed heavy in an oily kinda way with no balance of the delicate flavors. I have not way to be sure, but the peas and carrots in the pork curry seemed to be from a frozen bag.

  11. Doug Hamaker says

    My favorite thai place in portland. Order the wonton soup, it single handedly fed me through my wisdom teeth removal. also owner is supppa nice.

    give this a shot

  12. James says

    Love this place, came here my first night living in portland when I moved here a week or two ago. The food was astounding! We’re headed back tonight with a few friends to show them how awesome it was. my friend’s hoping to apply for a job there! :P Hope tonight’s another ‘on’ night.

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