Kaffir Thai, named for the aromatic kaffir lime leaf which is used in many Southeast-Asian dishes, whispers of a destination half a world away. With blue jeweled elephants painted on the walls (trunks up, for good luck), carved Buddha masks, and brightly-colored silk pillows for sitting cross-legged on the floor, the ambiance sings not necessarily of Thailand alone, but a mixture of Pan-Asian eco-regions.
After working in the building for more than 14 years while it changed hands and names, from Lotus Down Town to el Empire, Fidel Balcaza bought the restaurant (with the money from a motorcycle accident) to start it anew as Kaffir Thai. Perhaps with the help of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles that sits atop the bar, what could have been a potential tragedy became instead a unique and highly successful restaurant.
When asked how or why he ventured into Thai food, a cuisine (and not to mention country) that is unfamiliar in name, spice, and geographical location to many Argentines, Fidel simply shrugs. “I am more interested in having people feel comfortable here, feel at home, than I am in the type of food. As long as it’s good and the people are happy, so am I.” He just so happens to be a Thai-food fanatic. And he also just so happens to make it delicious. It would be hard to beat his Red Curry, with pumpkin coconut milk and Thai basil leaves, in any restaurant west of Bangladesh. To find it in a downtown back-alley of Buenos Aires is even rarer, where locals tend to knit their eyebrows suspiciously when talk of exotic food – with names like “Gaeng Kaiwan Nua o Kai” – creeps into their culinary conversations.
To satisfy the local palate, the spicy flavors on the menu are “optional” (although it doesn’t feel quite like Thai food without breaking a little sweat), and there are over 13 vegetarian-friendly dishes. Plates like the Salad Yam Mamuang, with fresh mango, peanuts, avocado, cilantro, and a drizzle of lime vinaigrette can be served with or without tofu, shrimp, chicken, or pork. And true to the Thai tradition of cooking, garnishes of fresh mint and fruit fuse the floral perfume to the spicy hot in many dishes, adding a noticeable “sweetness to the fire.” You may notice this metaphor extending even as far as the plate décor, with a red aji pepper that has been cut open and flayed to look like a blooming flower. It’s temptingly beautiful, but beware… it’s for the brave souls only.
The restaurant has plenty of seating to choose from, for both lunch and dinner – whether at an upstairs table overlooking the curving snake-like bar, downstairs at a deep circular booth lit by glowing orbs, or outdoors under a canopy of trees. While waiting for a table, you can sit in one of the plush chairs by the entrance, where traveling Buddhist monks have been sighted doing the exact same thing. There are deep red colors offset by lime green walls and iron architecture, candles flickering over hidden Om signs, and glass-blown light fixtures suspended on metal vines that have all come together to make the experience as authentic and exotic as Thailand itself.
The bar offers a wide selection of liquor, beer, and wine for whatever mood you may be in, but also a fantastic selection of Thai-inspired drinks like the Trago Kaffir (vodka, kaffir lime leaf, mint, and ginger). If you want something warm to sip, ask for the hot ginger tea. It’s not on the menu but it’s every regular’s favorite.
To top off the night and round-out your palate, there are desserts like the Glue Kaek (fried bananas with vanilla ice cream, shaved coconut, and almonds). It gives you a little warmth, a little crunch, and a little cold, all in one spoonful. If you want to try a dessert uniquely Thai, try the sticky sweet rice in coconut milk with slices of fresh mango. Some people may be unaware that rice for dessert can be fantastic, but it is.
Thai food in Argentina, like the Kaffir lime leaf, is a rare delicacy – hard to find, even harder to import, and very difficult to fuse with Latin American gastronomy. And yet, whether thanks to the motorcycle accident, Fidel himself, or to the miniature statue of Ganesha sitting silently over his shoulder with trunk and limbs spread in every direction, this restaurant, like the leaf, has blossomed.
by Kate Elgee
Photos by Elizabeth Gottwald