The elusive mid-range of curry heat

In search of khao soi

Khao soi: crispy noodles add to the fun of a soupy noodle curry dish
  • Khao soi: crispy noodles add to the fun of a soupy noodle curry dish

"Hey, what's the name of that Thai spot we liked?" my friend called to ask.

Aaharn Thai

1202 Kettner Boulevard #104, Little Italy

Good question. I'd found its menu on a web delivery service, and I'd never once had to pronounce the restaurant's name out loud: Aaharn Thai. Officially, it calls itself AAHARN by Koon Thai.

A nondescript exterior for a downtown Thai restaurant, pronounced Ah-harn.

A nondescript exterior for a downtown Thai restaurant, pronounced Ah-harn.

"It's called Ah…" I started, "Ah…. Oh, just pick me up," I said, "I'll show you where it is."

It's downtown, a block up from the Museum of Contemporary Art. It's not the most visible restaurant location, sharing a small indoor complex with wellness businesses including a massage therapist and a float spa. But it had a decent lunch crowd.

We'd come here looking for a specific dish: khao soi. It's a Burmese influenced dish I'd tried and loved during a trip to San Francisco a few years back. At this moment in history, Myanmar may not seem like an exemplary melting pot of cultures. But geographically, the nation formerly known as Burma sits at an enviable crossroads for fans of eastern culinary traditions. In addition to Thailand, it shares a border with both India and China.

Which brings me back to khao soi: chicken curry served over egg noodles. Technically, I think it's egg noodles served in a soup of chicken curry, pickled cabbage, and shallots. But either way it's topped with crispy egg noodles. That means, in addition to the novelty of eating curry over noodles instead of rice, you get the novelty of crunchy noodles soaking up curry to create a pleasing mix of crunchy and chewy textures.

The yellow curry sits somewhere between Indian and Thai style curries, pungent and nutty, with a coconut milk base. What I discovered from that first experience with Aaharn is that their take on khao soi is an incredibly spicy dish. I'd ordered medium spice — right in the middle between very mild and super hot — and. it. burned.

My brain loved the flavor of the curry so much I wanted to savor it, but with each bite my mouth told me to down a beer and try to salvage the smoldering embers of my tongue instead. It went on like this, to my pain and delight, until I put my leftovers in the fridge. The next day I went back for more, and ate it cold, as if doing so would cool the spice down a bit. It did not.

So on our visit to the restaurant, I confidently ordered the khao soi mild as can be. Too mild, it turned out. While the pleasant nuttiness was there, the curry didn't seem to have enough midrange without the heat to bolster it. Fortunately, service included a ramekin of chili oil, which I could use to get it just right.

As for the chicken itself, it didn't seem as good at lunch as it had with my dinner order — a bit of gristle — so consistency with this dish could be lacking. But when it's on, it's on. I recently learned they serve khao soi at Soi 30th in North Park, so I'll revisit soon in my quest to find anything like Burmese food in San Diego. If anyone knows where to get a good tea leaf salad, do share.

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