Restaurant Review

Freaky Tiki

A trio of Portland talents bring Thai cooking, Texas ‘cue, and tropical vibes to the table at Eem.

By Karen Brooks Photography by Stuart Mullenberg August 27, 2019 Published in the September 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

[Top photo: Eem's tropical fruit-channeling Daggermouth brandy punch, stir-fried snow pea tips, red curry with roasted vegetables, and BBQ pork steak with Thai dipping sauces]

Say you had the chops to nail a true Central Thai coconut soup, with all its shrimp paste perfumes and lemongrass edges. But instead of trending traditional, with giant lotus stems and steamed mackerel on top, you go haywire, sideways, a little Portland, and call your buddy to crown the whole thing with Texas ’cue: sticky, smoky burnt brisket ends forged in the embers of a Little Red Smokehouse. Each spoonful tastes like Cream of Austin Barbecue Soup seasoned with Thai beach vibes—like pure, unabashed happiness. How has nobody thought of this before?

Suck it down with a left-field tiki epiphany, essentially a piña colada fused with a jungle bird cocktail and a rich coffee bite, then churned in a fancy Frosty machine. To order it just say, “Gimme the Drugs.” Because, of course, this drink is literally named “Drugs.”

Put another way: If you’re not having fun at Eem, something is seriously wrong.

Eem bartender Ashelee Wells

Mash-up concepts and chef-bartender collaborations are foundational to Portland’s food scene, often expressed at ephemeral pop-ups. But occasionally, that collective, freewheeling spirit morphs into something concrete. It happened in February, when three talents banded together to forge the missing link between Thai cooking and Lone Star pit culture, backed by goofy but detailed island drinks. That pretty much sums up Eem, a rollicking, sweat-inducing “Thai barbecue cocktail” joint on North Williams Avenue from an unlikely all-star cast: Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom (mastermind of Thai landmarks Langbaan and Hat Yai), Matt Vicedomini (of food-cart phenom Matt’s BBQ), and bar veteran Eric Nelson, whose Shipwreck cocktail pop-up was 2018’s best roving party. (The name is a play on their initials as well as the phonetic spelling of a Thai word for “satiated.”)

Eem could have easily been another supergroup restaurant disaster. Remember Trigger? Corazon? Didn’t think so. After all, Ninsom, arguably Portland’s most important restaurateur, is busy running four other restaurants, including a second Hat Yai. And Vicedomini, the dominant force in Portland’s waning food-cart movement, is focused on his latest sensation, Matt’s BBQ Tacos on SE Hawthorne. Fortunately, as was always the plan, Nelson holds the fort beautifully as Eem’s linchpin and ever-present party host. He’s stocked the bar with seasoned pros, turning them loose to fuse umbrella drinks and cocktail classics into something new, often adorned with orchids, embedded with flashing lights, or sloshing in vintage sea creature mugs. The Pineapple Fantasy shows just how right this thinking can go, a Pimm’s Cup on vacation with pineapple rum, guava jam, and bird’s-eye chiles. But the groundbreaking drinks here are often no proof: shaken, salty-maple Coca-Cola to an egg-rich, nutmeg-cloaked Thai tea flip that tastes like eggnog without the winter.

Eem's roasted beet salad with mint and coconut beet cream, hot cauliflower, brisket boudain with Thai fried egg salad, white curry with brisket burnt ends

The menu’s two dozen dishes jump around from puffed-rice-strewn roasted beets to fried cauliflower hot enough to fog your eyes from the inside. The sweet-and-sour fried chicken definitely has fans. “It tastes like chicken coated in candy corn!” moaned a lady at the next table.

Curries are the high point of the menu—five lip tinglers, three of them tangled with daily-smoked meats. Eem’s secret weapon is on curry duty: diminutive Rassamee “Nim” Ruaysuntia, an alum of Bangkok’s famed Nahm kitchen and Ninsom’s chef copilot dating back to early Langbaan days. Few cooks around can match her focus and feel for flavors. Even Damian Lillard would crumple at her game face. Among the gems: a frisky jungle curry juggling fried Thai eggplants and fatty-rich brisket slabs as well as a tamarind-steeped wonder that parks roasted cod over a thrum of tart heat and braised daikon.

Ace curry cool Rassamee "Nim" Ruaysuntia

So far, the smoked meats work best when they play wingman to Thai flavors. Standing alone, not so much: baby back ribs are forgettable, and prosaic, snap-free green curry sausage—only two weenie slices!—brings to mind Thai night at the Hilton. The lone exception is the Korean saam-riffing BBQ pork steak, its juicy, bark-lusty slivers flanked by lettuce wrappers and spicy Thai dipping sauces. It gets you thinking about where Eem might go if it pushed the barbecue part of this equation. How about a meat and three, with your choice of Thai-singing sides and awesome pickles? What might a house riff on Thai potato salad taste like? How about folding that lonely block of BBQ pork belly into one of those terrific flour tortillas from Matt’s BBQ Tacos, under a shower of Thai herbs? I’d eat that every day.

Right now, a case can be made that Eem is Portland’s best new restaurant, just based on fun factor alone. With some digging, and more interesting desserts, it could be a national treasure. It’s the perfect antidote to fast-casual dining: approachable but different, swiftly delivered by informed servers, with pretty, dreamy drinks, and no dish over $17. And in an anxious world, who needs a heavenly lime fro-yo margarita dubbed “Jesus and Tequila”? Judging by Eem’s hour-long prime-time waits, everyone.

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