Restaurateur Earl Ninsom at Eem

Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom wasn’t looking to change Portland’s food conversation back in 2009. He just wanted something to eat, or rather something he wanted to eat. The Bangkok-born Portlander cooked westernized Thai-American food at his family’s restaurant in St. Johns because it was safe; it paid Mom’s bills. But “it was killing me,” he says of the job. So, at age 30, he sold his car to help fund his own spot, Mee-Sen on North Mississippi, using muscle memory to re-create the noodle dishes of his youth. Mee-Sen had easygoing charm, but it wasn’t about to challenge Pok Pok’s scholarly Chiang Mai homages in Southeast. As Ninsom recalls, “I still used instant noodle powder for flavor. I didn’t know anything about Portland’s food scene.”

Within two years, though, few had studied it more closely. Ninsom ate his way across Portland, parsing what and how the city eats, while digging into cooking classes and old-school cookbooks on visits back to Thailand. After selling Mee-Sen, he opened PaaDee in 2011, a better-than-average neighborhood Thai restaurant. Meanwhile, he staged (interned) at not just Bangkok’s famed Nahm but at Portland’s Genoa, a legend for formal Italian, while luring skilled Thai line cooks, foremost among them 4-foot-10 dynamo and Nahm alum
Rassamee “Nim” Ruaysuntia.

Something clicked in his head in 2014: Nahm’s attention to detail, Portland’s love of experiential adventures and ... boom, out of nowhere and out of the box came Langbaan. Ninsom’s Thai tasting menu party, in a secret room behind PaaDee’s kitchen, went nationally lauded supernova, impressing seen-it-all critics like Ruth Reichl and nabbing Portland Monthly’s “Restaurant of the Year” title. 

Ninsom and chef Andrew Mace created one of the year's great dishes, Hat Yai 2's spicy, crispy trout ready to scoop up with assorted herbs.

The hits kept coming, as Ninsom grew his Portland family: 2016’s Hat Yai, a lo-fi Southern Thai shop hawking great fried-shallot-showered fried chicken and cinnamon-spiked curry that was a partnership with Langbaan drink maestro Alan Akwai. Ninsom championed up-and-comers, like Gado Gado and Vince Nguyen, via pop-ups at Langbaan. Last year, rumors swirled about a secret project with another Langbaan vet, bartender Eric Nelson, and food cart pit boss Matt Vicedomini.

“He has so much passion,” says Nelson of the cat-quiet restaurateur. “He doesn’t tell you, but he’s so fired up about restaurants. He falls asleep listening to Bon
Appétit
shows.”

Now, Ninsom has another Restaurant of the Year under his ever-present baseball cap: Eem, the playfully delicious Thai-barbecue-tiki joint Portlanders couldn’t shut up about in 2019. Eem is prime Ninsom: curry-dialed, collaborative, a little off-kilter. A mere decade after that inauspicious start on Mississippi, he’s fully developed his own restaurant vernacular, a singularly delicious synthesis of Thailand and Portland. Meanwhile, at Hat Yai’s second outpost, opened in June on SE Belmont, he created one of the year’s great dishes, simply dubbed “Trout” with Hat Yai chef and Le Pigeon vet Andrew Mace. The name doesn’t begin to capture this wild ride—the fillet’s crackly, tamarind-glazed skin blanketed in fried garlic, crispy shrimp, baby anchovies, and hot chiles, all scooped up with fresh leaves, betel to chrysanthemum.

What makes him the city’s most important restaurateur right now? Ox’s Greg Denton, a Ninsom believer since the early PaaDee days, puts it succinctly: “It’s hard to think of anyone, recently, who has opened more restaurants, in such a small amount of time, with so many different, noncorporate concepts and partnerships. He sees the good in his partners, gives them ownership, and plays to their strengths. It may not work out every time, but when it does, it changes the entire Portland culinary landscape.”

Ninsom’s secret sauce is simple but hard-won. “Do something you like,” he tells me. “If you’re miserable it won’t last. Happiness is important.”

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