Portland Monthly's Restaurant of the Year 2014: Langbaan
Langbaan’s cozy, cramped kitchen looks like a foodie’s vision of a Bangkok night market, strewn with herbs, moody shadows, and pounding mortars and pestles. Behind the counter, a trio of Thai cooks in baseball caps and nifty butcher aprons communicate through what seems like a mysterious sonar system. Their eye darts and head nods somehow combine to produce the wonders to come: herbaceous snacks, complex soups, ecstatic salads, curries swooped up with smoky pastes, and, always, intriguing desserts. It quickly adds up to one of America’s best Thai food experiences.
Ringleader Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom sweats the arc and flow of the night’s tasting menu. At his elbow, his wife, Thanissara, known to everyone as “Golf,” nips and tucks greens like a plastic surgeon, giving new curves to wide betel leaves destined for miang som, a two-bite bundle of bitter, sour, juice, crunch, heat, and sweet roasted coconut, ferociously delicious. The ringer in the kitchen is Portland newcomer Rassamee Ruaysuntia, busy pounding, torching, and ladling with a stickler’s precision and imbuing every composition with her sixth sense for flavors. Customers are camped across the bar, giggling at the sheer surprise of little-known Thai dishes that bundle Grandma’s curry-paste wisdom, royal palace recipes, regional specialties, carefully sourced seafood, and Oregon bounty. In a year that saw cooks replace fine dining with personalized cooking and friendly ambition, no place better expresses the shift than Langbaan: a groundbreaking canvas for a cuisine typically relegated to funky-dive status, repackaged in casually ceremonious nights that excite our brains and feed our bones for a mere $45–65.
To find it, duck in to the back room of Ninsom’s bustling east-side restaurant PaaDee and look for a wall-mounted meat grinder. One yank, and a bookcase swings back, revealing a 24-seat haven of reclaimed wood and cascading succulents. Here, Ninsom paints a complex landscape distinct from the aggressive, straight-from-Chiang Mai street flavors of Andy Ricker’s nationally celebrated Pok Pok, long Portland’s defining Thai force. Langbaan’s choreographed evenings deliver fresh excitement—light, interactive, and herb-intensive, full of shifting moods and a wealth of dishes and ingredients rarely found stateside. A supercharge of watermelon, dried snakehead fish, and fried shallots might fade to an intricately mellow curry of just-cooked scallops, nasturtium leaves, and teeny shrimp still crackling in their caramelized shells. Ninsom’s goal: to blend Portland’s underground vibe with “seriously old-school Thai cooking,” as he calls it.
Just how old-school? Ruaysuntia trained at Thailand’s top-ranked Nahm. But her personal bible is a copy of the 120-year-old Tumrub Saowapa, written by a Thai princess obsessed with healthy eating, with exacting formulas measured in “coins.” The book’s dog-eared pages inspired some of the year’s culinary revelations: raw coconut water to baptize slow-braised rabbit soup and lotus seeds; smoked mussels charcoaled over coconut meat, cinnamon and pandan leaves to pair with smashed raw shrimp, foraged sea beans, tart finger-lime roe, and pork rinds’ heavenly crunch.
The room fills with the noise of fun. Everyone’s in, no one more so than Jenny Kwok, the food-loving server who doubles as your tour guide to this great world of eating. Easing a customer into a dish, she waxes on the beauty of prawn brains: “It’s so pretty, like raspberry jam—super bright, slightly sweet, just true essence. Be sure to smear it ... it’s like an extra sauce!” At Langbaan, you’re always in good hands.