If you remember nothing else about this restaurant, remember this: Kao Sarn is closed on Thursdays. That’s right, Thursdays.
Important detail No. 2: It’s not easy to find, even by Eden Center standards. Look for the big banner facing the Mongolian restaurant, enter the glass doors underneath the banner to access the Saigon West wing of a mini indoor mall and you’ll find this polka dot of a storefront on the right-hand side about halfway down the hall. If you’re smart enough to plan ahead, there’s a handy map of how to find it on the restaurant’s website.
Despite turning up on the wrong day and having a heck of a time finding it, it was still fairly impossible not to love Kao Sarn. It’s adorably tiny and modern, with trendy black and white chairs arranged around four or five tables lit by a chic chandelier. The bar that opens to the kitchen is lined with a half dozen or so metal stools and is surrounded by a chalkboard wall embellished with colorful drawings and Thai words.
The first thing you should notice, though, is the amazing aroma of fish sauce, garlic, fresh herbs and the myriad of other ingredients that go into making Thai cuisine so alluring. Chef Arin Lapakulchai will be busy in the kitchen and a friendly server will likely remember you if you’ve been there before.
And why wouldn’t you go back? Each visit revealed a roster of very well executed versions of Thai favorites, like fried-to-perfection chicken curry puffs and pungent, spicy green papaya salad.
In addition, there was always a knockout dish among the others crowded on the table—a dish we couldn’t stop picking at even after we were full. One visit turned up outstanding slices of creamy-centered eggplant stir-fried with ground pork and basil in a garlic-chili sauce. The next brought a crave-worthy jumble of spicy Chinese broccoli with crispy pork belly in a rich brown sauce. Both are served over rice, and the latter dish comes with the option of a fried egg on top. (Yes, of course you want the fried egg on top.)
While some reviewers have raved about the kao soi, my bowl required too many dips into spicy condiment jars to achieve the balance that usually makes this chicken and curry coconut noodle soup so great. The Boat Noodle Soup, fragrant with star anise and beef broth, packs the flavor of a richer, deeper cousin of Vietnamese pho—which makes sense when you later notice that the Thai name for it is “pho Thai.”
That old standby, the green papaya salad, was plenty good, but try the yum woon sen—aka, bean thread salad—for a pleasant change. The glassy noodles are tossed with ground pork, shrimp, tomatoes, cilantro and chili-lime dressing, all receiving a welcome crunch from strips of celery.
Finish strong with an order of warm, sweet coconut sticky rice topped with a fan of mango slices for a comforting, refreshing dessert. Like many dishes here, its presence might make the menu read like that of any old Thai restaurant, but the execution elevates it to something a lot more memorable.
795 Wilson Blvd., Unit 12, Falls Church
Open daily for lunch and dinner Friday-Wednesday