This is no great insight, but since I’m not spending half my life in cars and restaurants, I’ve had time to contemplate such things as the parallels between “Pat” Sebamonpimol and pad thai, arguably the dish most recognizable to diners outside Thailand. Both are inventions to help build a new identity. Created, or at least popularized during World War II, pad thai became an almost universal symbol of Thai food in a country with dramatic regional variations. The shortening of Sebamonpimol’s first name, done after he moved to the United States in the late 1990s, reflects his willingness to assimilate, maybe even sublimate himself, to his new country.
Like Sebamonpimol’s name, pad thai is also malleable, willing to shed some of its essential Thai-ness as a way to facilitate easy introductions. The pad thai at Charm Thai, which Sebamonpimol opened in 2011, contains no noticeable chile heat or fish sauce, the latter a pungent, alchemical element that simultaneously elevates and deepens every dish it touches. You could say Charm’s pad thai knows its audience.
Anyone who has been following the dining scene for the past decade, however, knows that America’s tastes have been changing at a rapid clip, faster perhaps than those old patriarchs who cling to power can even process. The evolution of the American palate did not escape the attention of Sebamonpimol: His observations had less to do with developments on the scene — whether the success of Baan Thai and Little Serow in Washington or the explosion of regional Thai around the country — but more to do with the diners inside his own restaurants. He noticed they were becoming adventurous, open to dishes with heavier applications of galangal, curry powder, coriander seed, chile peppers and fish sauce.
“People now are okay with that compared to before,” Sebamonpimol tells me.
He knew the time was right to up his game, to give voice to Pattarapong, not just Pat. Two years ago, he opened Kiin Imm Thai Restaurant, his nod to Thai street food. It occupies a modest storefront in the Ritchie Center in Rockville, a strip mall that, in better times, serves up a global buffet of Peruvian ceviches, Vietnamese pho, Beijing-style zha jiang mian, Taiwanese bubble teas and sweet, sticky South Asian jalebis. Kiin Imm fits right in.
Unlike Sebamonpimol’s previous ventures, Kiin Imm proudly trumpets its Thai heritage across the marquee. Its name roughly translates in English to “full,” says the owner, but also “happy.” I imagine it’s the Thai equivalent of when my Midwestern relatives push away from the holiday table, their plates cleaned and their wine bottles drained, and proudly announce, “I’m stuffed,” with a gentle pat on their extended bellies.
Kiin Imm had just celebrated its second anniversary when the pandemic rolled in, which not only crushed the joy of the moment but also deprived customers of the privilege of sinking into the warmth of Sebamonpimol’s wooded, cubbyhole-like dining room. You can’t even sneak a peek of the room now. The owner has erected a table outside the entrance for pickup orders. Several silver buckets are on the table: One for sanitized pens, another for “used” pens and a third for tips. I suggest you drop a fiver, or more, into the last bucket for the thoughtfulness that Sebamonpimol brings to all aspects of Kiin Imm, including those sanitized pens.
The owner was smart enough to partner with Ing Rumphan, a former server who now oversees operations at the Rockville location. (There’s now a second Kiin Imm in Vienna; 2676 Avenir Place, Suite A; 703-560-2788 or 703-560-2688.) As part of the deal, Rumphan brought along his mom, a chef with decades of experience both in Thailand and the United States. Angkana Rumphan came to America in 1992 to cook at the Thai Embassy; she later worked at local restaurants, starting with a lengthy stint at Duangrat’s, the chef favorite in Falls Church, followed by a decade-long run at Thai Pavilion in Rockville. She is one of the many unsung stars in immigrant kitchens.
Angkana Rumphan developed the menu for Kiin Imm, and as Sebamonpimol told me, she can make any dish, no matter its origin within Thailand. I’ve savored her khao soi, the curry noodle bowl from Chiang Mai in the northern reaches of Thailand. I’ve respected the chile burn buried in her boat noodle soup, sometimes known as floating market noodle soup because it’s available from vendors in long-tailed boats moored to Bangkok piers. I’ve devoured her khao kha moo, the fragrant braised pork common among street vendors in the capital. I’ve appreciated the thick nuttiness of her panang curry, the meat-heavy dish with its roots in the royal court.
Did some of my pleasures come with asterisks? Of course, but only because of the realities of pandemic-related takeout, not due to any deficiencies with the restaurant itself. I had to assemble my own khao soi at home, some 30 minutes after picking it up, without any practice at replicating the dish’s sculptural grace. I had to disentangle the brick of rice noodles in my pad thai before I could appreciate its sophisticated application of fish sauce and chiles. I had to accept a crispy catfish fillet that has lost its edge, though its sheen of curry glaze still retained plenty of heat. I had no one to share in my excitement when, in the privacy of my car, I bit into a plain-looking chive cake to reveal a big flavorful burst of neon green herbs. Only the mango sticky rice survived the trips unscathed, its coconut milk perfume as seductive as ever.
I thought of these takeout concessions, and more, when Sebamonpimol revealed that he’s been waiting 15 years for a review from the newspaper of his adopted region. “That was my dream,” he confided. This column, drawn from my experiences during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, is clearly not what he imagined his first Post review would look like, and I feel for him. He deserves better. But then again: If the food is this good under compromised conditions, imagine what it will be like once you can sit in Kiin Imm and experience the place as the owners intended.
If you go
Kiin Imm Thai Restaurant
785-D Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md., 301-251-1888 or 301-251-1889; kiinimmthai.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; and 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with a 0.7-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4.95 to $7.95 for soups, salads and appetizers; $10.95 to $16.95 for specials, street foods and entrees.