Best New Restaurants 2019

Eem is Portland Monthly’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year

Meaty, spicy-sweet, and ridiculously fun, Thai tiki barbecue is what we need in 2019.

By Karen Brooks October 18, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Vintage tiki mugs add to the loopy joy of an Eem meal.

Is Eem a brave new design concept? Nope. Does it boast a highly ambitious menu? Not really. But does it have its own magnetic pull, craveable flavors that occupy your head like a Lizzo earworm, umbrella drinks you want to suck down like it’s last call before the hour of annihilation, and one curry dish headed for Portland’s record books? That would be a resounding yes.

Most important, does it capture our hearts and imagination? Consider this: Even before the doors opened last February, the city’s collective neurons were fizzing in anticipation over this rollicking, sweat-inducing “Thai barbecue tiki cocktail” mash-up on North Williams, from a star Thai restaurateur, a Texas barbecue food trucker, and a sober bartender. Lines formed instantly and never let up.

Overnight, Eem erupted as an epicenter of fun eating and drinking: clever, collaborative, affordable, spicy, meaty, a bit bombastic, and slathered in good vibes and coconut cream. Call it the distillation of Portland’s food scene or just the salve we need in these anxious times. Or, simply put, our Restaurant of the Year.

Ideal order: white curry with brisket burnt ends is the star around which Eem revolves, its easy-to-love Thai broth (creamy, hot, sweet) teeming with smoky charred meat from the Austin school of barbecue. But don’t sleep on the lip-buzzing tamarind curry, crowned in roasted fish, or a rich descent into the kitchen’s massaman curry, powered by smoked lamb shoulder. The best solo meat play? BBQ pork steak, slivered, juicy, dark-glazed, and meant to be tucked in lettuce leaves. Meanwhile, Eem has found the apex mountain for cauliflower: flash-fried, mouth-on-fire spicy, and flaunting potato-chip-level crunch.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Eem's signature white curry with brisket burnt ends; cocktails get the fancy frosty machine treatment; ace curry cook Rassamee “Nim” Ruaysuntia; the booze-free Change of Address drink

For all this, Eem is not Portland’s prototypical, small-batch culinary experiment. It’s a straight-up restaurant, what everyday dining looks like as Portland grows up: genuine, merry, and deliciously different, sure, but also business-sure and able to confidently function in the face of crowds. The concept is backed by three owners in peak influence mode. That includes house maestro Eric Nelson, whose Shipwreck cocktail pop-up was last year’s best roving party, and Matt Vicedomini, who has gone from “random barbecue guy in a parking lot” to the face of Portland’s food-cart scene in two fast years, bolstered this year by Matt’s BBQ Tacos. And then there’s Earl Ninsom, a guy who knits concepts and friendships into Thai restaurant gold, from Langbaan to Hat Yai. Eem settles it: Ninsom is also our Restaurateur of the Year.

There’s still work to be done. The meat needs more consistency, more sliced-to-order cred, and a clearer sense of mission in this marriage. Pickled pineapple on pork belly does not a revelation make.

Drinks ultimately provide the glue for the restaurant’s far-flung concept. No old-man cocktails here. Praise be, Eem has put fun back in the glass, with beach-ball-boozy remixes that are sweet, yes, but also sly, surprising, and sharply balanced. This is where coffee-speckled piña coladas are frothed like Frappuccinos and even Hawaiian punch gets its due as a grand golden bowl swimming with tropical cordials. 

The “Clear-Headed” drink section is a serious draw, as Nelson, now five years sober, builds a detailed booze-free world. His Change of Address is, seriously, the world’s best Coca-Cola, the iconic soda brimming with salty, savory swagger courtesy of shoyu plus a shimmy of maple and fresh lemon, all carefully shaken over ice pebbles. Even Coke bungled New Coke back in the day. It took a place like Eem to nail it. Sometimes, messing with formulas pays off. 3808 N Williams Ave

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