Fed Man 55: Spin Modern Thai (14)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 14: Spin Modern Thai
14005 U.S. 183 N., Suite 1000. 512-258-1365, www.spinmodernthai.com.
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 11am-2pm. Dinner Sun-Thu 5-9pm, Fri-Sat 5-10pm.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.30.12
UPDATED 07/26/13: Spin's last day of service will be Saturday, July 27.
Brother and sister Ek and Titaya Timrerk are attacking Thai cooking on two fronts, and both are part of the Fed Man 55. Titaya Timrerk landed at No. 36 with Titaya’s on North Lamar, where she represents the Thai canon with traditional tom-kha soup, papaya salad and pad Thai.
But at No. 14, it’s big brother Ek Timrerk’s turn with Spin Modern Thai, where he’s transforming Thai food the way Uchi energized Japanese almost 10 years ago. Hardly coincidental, given that Timrerk worked at Uchi and helped create the East Side King trailers with Uchi co-workers Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya. He opened Spin this summer with three partners and an Uchiko cook named Thai Changthong, who plays the charismatic Che to Timrerk’s Fidel. Changthong said that other cuisines — Japanese, Mexican, French — have found innovative champions, and it’s time that Thai had a champion of its own.
That approach came through in a dish called larb sake, assembled in the busy style of the ubiquitous “small plate,” with tomatillo, cherry tomato, cilantro and sliced grapes in a tableaux with dice-sized pieces of raw salmon. While the small-plate canvas has become a familiar medium, Thai food presents a new box of paints, in this case the bright strokes of lemongrass and the rosy watercolor wash of the fish sauce nam pla ($9). The dinner menu, which changes every few weeks, is divided into $5-$6 starters, $9-$12 “tasting plates” and $10-$16 “full plates.”
Golden nuggets of Popcorn Escolar ($6) walked a long plate like fried snacks on an assembly line, getting ready for a coat of sweet chili vinaigrette, a sprinkle of crushed peanuts and scissored bits of pickled cucumber. It was salty and sweet, more like kettle corn than popcorn, the kind you’d imagine at a seaside county fair. Yum Baby Octopus ($12) came with instructions from the kitchen to mix the plate together to mingle the elements: heat from chiles, crunch from peanuts and radish, big citrus and herb flavors and octopus with a leg up on the Tako Pops at Uchi.
A dish of grilled escolar ($12) started out like a classic Thai curry before the pickled radishes kicked in and I sensed as much as tasted the tuna that went into the umber-colored stock. Long threads of galangal formed a baseline of ginger and earth. The most structured of the plates at Spin, a beef tongue dish called Lin Wua ($12) was shuffled together like a tower of poker chips laid on its side, with a fully composed bite every two inches. The tongue was cooked sous vide, then grilled over Japanese coals, brushed with brown butter and spiked with red Thai chile (“The only kind. Named after me,” Changthong said.). Mint gastrique brightened things up, and a little crisp bacon along the sides brought it back to earth. The tongue itself called to mind pork belly: striated, immaculately tender, layered with fat and lean that could hold up to a stew — or an intricate Thai fusion experiment.
Spin can do the carefully composed dishes at dinner, but it flies closer to the ground for lunch, working in a familiar Thai vein. Familiar, but still with a style of its own, working from a shorter menu of $5-7 starters and lunch plates with soup for around $9.
A humble bowl of Kao Soi chicken curry ambushed me, wearing a camouflage of basil leaves and cilantro and pickled mustard greens with a sour crunch. Hidden somewhere in there was enough spice to bring a perspiring sheen like misty joy. Every corner of the bowl was like a province of regional tastes carried by the see-saw textures of ramen-style soft noodles and crunchy fried noodles like tempura candy. And the milky curry was the Force, binding them together as a galaxial whole. The chicken at its core — a bone-in leg and thigh — had absorbed curry into every muscular bite. Before I even troubled the waters of this overbounding square bowl, I breathed in the aroma like that scene when Crocodile Dundee dumps the guy’s cocaine in hot water for the most expensive Vicks Vapo-Steam ever. At Spin, the same rush costs $9, with all the euphoria and none of the paranoia.
The food is right where it should be. Everything else is a work in progress. The decor is hard and bare, a flat-toned and utilitarian collection of wooden seats and concrete floors. The service staff is friendly but still finding its way, and I’m not sure if the location will ever feel right, parked as it is beside a day spa, a pediatric dentist and a CiCi’s Pizza on a sand-colored sidewalk that broils like the Sahara along the paved flatlands around 183. This ranking is an endorsement of Spin’s potential, the kind of bet gamblers might have placed on Uchi before it became a sure thing.
(TOP: Kao Soi chicken curry and a sous vide beef tongue dish called Lin Wua. FIRST INSET: The kitchen crew at Spin includes, from left: David Baek, Thai Changthong, Michael Kemble and Ek Timrerk. SECOND INSET: Raw salmon anchors a fusion dish called Larb Sake; Spin's plain facade belies the creativity inside; grilled escolar with tuna curry and galangal. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants