Norraset and Rujira Nareedokmai are on a mission to introduce Pittsburgh’s collective palate to an unfamiliar cuisine. The husband-and-wife team behind Bangkok Balcony in Squirrel Hill recently transformed their second-floor space into KIIN Lao & Thai Eatery.
The Nareedokmais are from Thailand. After visiting the neighboring country, they fell in love with Lao food and culture. Kiin means “eat together” in both languages.
Norraset, who goes by Nor, spent two weeks kitchen-hopping throughout the country, learning the tricks of the trade from Lao chefs — particularly how they infuse food with herbs, spices and French influences.
After returning to Pittsburgh, he reached out to award-winning chef Seng Luangrath, founder of the Lao Food Movement and owner of Thip Khao in Washington, D.C. She visited the Nareedokmais several times to advise them on their Lao offerings.
“We want to educate the local community,” says Nor, who also runs Silk Elephant, a Thai tapas and wine bar in Squirrel Hill. “We’ll be engaging people table-side about the culture and the food.”
The menu features shareable starters, salads and entrees which can be modified to meet different dietary needs.
Rujira says she can’t wait for dishes such as Kua Mee to become part of the local foodie lexicon. Made with either chicken, shrimp or tofu, the meal is comprised of wok rice noodles with fish sauce, caramel, egg, tomato, bean sprouts and lime.
Nor’s favorite is Orm, a hearty herbal stew with lemongrass, dill, eggplant, wood ear mushrooms, green beans and a choice of protein. Like all entrees, it’s served with sticky rice which you ball up with your fingertips and dip.
Is your kid a picky eater? They’ll love Ping Kai: roasted, marinated chicken with jaew dipping sauce. There will soon be a street-vendor style station set up at the restaurant to serve made-to-order som tum papaya salad, a staple of the Lao and Thai diet.
You’ll also find Thai dishes including tom yum noodle soup, green curry, crab fried rice and lemongrass noodles.
The remodeled eatery overlooking Forbes Avenue features seating for 85, including a long communal table and a small bar area where specialty beverages are served.
These include the Phongsalay Hot Toddy, a potent concoction of Benedictine liqueur, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and your choice of hot tea. And KIIN is working to partner with a local brewery to make a traditional Lao-style lager.
Henley Bounkhong, a Lao-American graffiti artist from Maryland, created colorful murals throughout the restaurant (even the restrooms are beautiful). Guests also will see snapshots of Laos captured by Nor’s son, Nolan, a photography student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
By giving Pittsburghers a glimpse into Lao culture, he hopes they’ll take a chance on its cuisine. Nor plans to introduce new menu items as people get more familiar with the flavors.
A weeklong soft opening saw many Lao natives lining up to get a taste of their homeland and curious locals willing to take a chance on something unfamiliar. Each time Rujira sends a Lao dish out to the dining room, she excitedly peeks her head out of the kitchen to see who ordered it.
“So far we’ve been pretty successful with customer satisfaction,” Nor says. “Education is a big part of that.”