For months and months we have wondered: what is Phuket Cafe, a deep underlying project opening on Friday March 18 from prominent chef-restaurateur Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom and his business partner, Eric Nelson, a supreme cocktail innovator and the instigator of the festive atmosphere behind Eem, our Restaurant of the Year 2019? Ninsom also has a southern Thai curry hot spot Yai Hat and southeast haunt Paadee. This will be her fifth Thai restaurant in Portland, each intimate and completely different.
We only knew this: Phuket Cafe was not the only restaurant to come to 1818 NW 23rd Square, former home of the beloved Ataula, unfortunately closed in 2021. LangbaanNinsom’s famous Thai tasting menu hideaway, closed its Kerns location at the end of February to relocate and restart in the same Nob Hill space.
Question asked: how could two restaurants fit together in a small space? And can Ninsom extend his track record of Portland culinary hits?
We have answers, sort of. Stay with me here:
Phuket Cafe opens for dinner only to start. The menu is loosely inspired by the creative energy of Bangkok, where Ninsom grew up, and the whirlwind of flavors of Phuket (poo-KET), which has strong Chinese, Malaysian and Muslim influences. Expect plenty of spicy, sour and grassy momentum with cheese-stuffed pandan roti, seafood accompanied by, among other things, crunchy peanuts (a Thai obsession) and the riff of cooking on a Thai steakhouse, helped by two new dry dishes – aging refrigerators for meat and fish.
The 37-seat restaurant is offering indoor dining only at this time. Outdoor seating is in the works, including a 23-seat ‘train-style’ licensed structure that has raised some eyebrows in the neighborhood as Portland realizes the future and scale of curbside dining.
Meanwhile, I bet we’re about to witness Portland’s next bar, playful yet serious cocktails that flaunt their own spectrum of flavors. This is where mezcal, lime and cucumbers meet fried shallots; where gin and hot Thai tea get a crown of crème de Fernet. My first order will be tequila, guava grenadine, “magic” orange juice and coconut furikake, shaken with a whole egg.
Each comes in a colored glass: Nelson went crazy buying them in Thai markets, no two are alike. “I spent three thousand dollars on glassware,” he told me with a mischievous smile. “I said to Earl, ‘I go crazy with glasses. You buy bowls for $70. I want glassware that no one else has.
Once the kitchen gets a foothold, weekday lunch will follow. Also in preparation: weekend brunch, with pumpkin creme French toast, squid juk and, yes, maybe a Thai fried chicken cookie sandwich, because that’s the law in Portland.
Soon, once the final permit is issued, Langbaan will rule the space four nights a week, with twenty-six places reserved. Cooks will spring into action in a new centralized open kitchen with a live fire show over old fashioned Thai charcoal pots. “Langbaan chefs cook on induction cookers,” Ninsom says with a hearty laugh. “It is time to spread our wings. We go to the classic.
On these nights, seating in Phuket, open to all, will be limited to the eight-seater bar and outdoor tables.
“We want to lighten the mood at Langbaan,” says Nelson, who once made drinks for the restaurant before recently becoming part-owner. “It’s not going to church. You don’t have to sit quietly. We want to make the atmosphere as lively as the food.
Part of that will come from music, a specialty of Nelson. His growing collection includes Thai rock on vinyl, fuzzy guitars zamrock, jazz, post-punk and Isan country music, which Phuket will mix freely. “Weirdly, Joy Division is good with Thai food,” Nelson insists. “I don’t know why but it works.” Adding to the aural mix: chatty bartender Chazz Madrigal, an occasional DJ with his own music.
Alongside Ninsom, longtime Langbaan kitchen veterans Kitsanaruk “Pui” Ketkuaviriyanont (head chef), Jon Maristela, William Harper and pastry chef Maya Erickson will collaborate on both menus. Langbaan’s tasting menu will change approximately every two months, jumping by theme or region. Phuket will be more fluid, with around ten a la carte dishes to start, plus fresh oysters with spicy nam jim dip and fried shallots as well as a few desserts. No doubt some early favorites will be killed off like game of thrones characters; others will emerge as fixed devices.
The Phuket menu draws heavily on a recent three-week trip to Bangkok and Phuket, where staff ate until they ‘hunched over in pain’ looking for dishes you wouldn’t not usually seen in Portland or America. far in Thailand; which struck me.” He says Bangkok is a hotbed of creativity right now. “A lot of things you didn’t see five years ago.” But part of the goal is to “let Can leave” with his own ideas and creativity.
What dishes am I most passionate about? Honestly everything. The flat nest of crispy fried rice noodles, served like crackers with a fermented tofu and pork dip, could be the new chips and dip. I’m really curious about striped bass ceviche with that brittle peanut. I definitely go for the whole fish fried, chopped, tossed with “miang kham dressing” and eaten taco style, with fresh herbs, betel leaves and lettuce for the wrap.
Only a fool would pass on a common Ninsom curry, made here with prawns, lemongrass and turmeric. The Thai-style seafood paella (a sweet homage to Ataula?) is also intriguing: fried rice with pork fat on the bottom, dried tom yum on top (think General Tso’s chicken, but with mussels). And I can’t wait to try Erickson’s mango and sticky rice kakigori, one of two homemade Japanese-style shaved ice desserts, a popular treat in Bangkok.
Bottom line: Phuket Cafe aims to be a den of food and a state of mind. “Earl laughs every time someone says ‘Fuck it’,” Nelson said. “He loves the idea of people saying ‘Fuck, I’m going to Phuket.'” In these times, we need a bit of that.
Phuket Cafe, 1818 NW 23rd Location, @phuketcafepdx