For months and months we've wondered: What is Phuket Cafe, the deep under-wraps spot opening Friday, March 18. Behind the project: prominent chef-restaurateur Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom and his business partner, Eric Nelson, a cocktail innovator supreme and the party-vibe instigator behind Eem, our 2019 Restaurant of the Year. Ninsom also owns Southern Thai curry hot spot Hat Yai and Southeast hangout Paadee. This will be his fifth Portland Thai restaurant, each one intimate and completely different.
We only knew this: Phuket Cafe was not the only restaurant coming to 1818 NW 23rd Place, formerly home of the beloved Ataula, sadly closed in 2021. Langbaan, Ninsom’s famed Thai tasting menu hideaway, closed its Kerns location in late February to relocate and reboot in the same Nob Hill space.
Begging the question: How could two restaurants be squeezed into one small space? And can Ninsom extend his track record of major Portland food 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 in Bangkok, where Ninsom grew up, and the whirlwind of flavors from Phuket (poo-KET), which has strong Chinese, Malaysian, and Muslim influences. Expect a lot of spicy, sour, herb-forward momentum along with cheese-stuffed pandan roti, seafood paired with, of all things, peanut brittle (a Thai obsession), and the kitchen's riff on a Thai steakhouse, aided by two new dry-aging fridges for meat and fish.
The 37-seat restaurant is offering indoor dining only for now. Outdoor seating is in the works, including a permitted 23-seat “train-style” structure that has raised some eyebrows in the neighborhood as Portland figures out the future and scale of sidewalk dining.
Meanwhile, I'm waging that we're about to witness Portland's next breakout bar—playful-but-serious cocktails that flash their own flavor spectrum. This is where mezcal, lime, and cucumbers meet fried shallots; where gin and warm Thai tea get a crown of Fernet cream. 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 these at markets in Thailand, no two the same. “I spent three thousand dollars on glassware,” he tells me with a wicked grin. “I said to Earl, 'I'm going fucking wild on glasses. You're buying $70 bowls. I want glassware no one else has.’”
Once the kitchen gets its footing, weekday lunch will follow. Also in the works: weekend brunch, with the likes of pumpkin custard French toast, squid juk, and yes, maybe a Thai fried chicken biscuit sandwich because it's the law in Portland.
Soon, once the final permit is issued, Langbaan will rule the space four nights a week, with twenty-six reserved seats. Cooks will spring to action in a new centralized open kitchen with a live-fire show over old-school Thai charcoal pots. “Langbaan chefs have been cooking on induction stoves,” says Ninsom with a hearty laugh. “It's time we spread our wings. We're going classic.”
On those nights, Phuket's seating, open to anyone, will be limited to the eight-seat bar and outdoor tables.
“We want to lighten up the vibe at Langbaan,” says Nelson, who once made drinks for the restaurant before becoming a recent co-owner. “It's not going to church. You don't have to sit there quietly. We want to make the atmosphere as lively as the food.”
Part of that will come from music, a Nelson specialty. His growing collection includes vinyl Thai rock, fuzzy-guitared zamrock, jazz, post-punk, and Isan country music, which Phuket will freely mingle. “Weirdly, Joy Division is good with Thai food,” Nelson insists. “I don't know why but it works.” Adding to the aural mix: chatty house bartender Chazz Madrigal, a sometime DJ with his own music following.
Along with Ninsom, longtime Langbaan kitchen vets Kitsanaruk “Pui” Ketkuaviriyanont (chef de cuisine), Jon Maristela, William Harper, and pastry chef Maya Erickson will collaborate on both menus. Langbaan's tasting menu will change roughly every two months, jumping off a theme or region. Phuket will be more fluid, with a dozen a la carte dishes to start, plus fresh oysters with spicy nam jim dipping sauce 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 unmovable fixtures.
Phuket's menu draws heavily on a recent three-week trip to Bangkok and Phuket, where the staff ate until they "bent over in pain” in search of dishes not typically seen in Portland or America. Ninsom calls the collection of dishes “What blew us away in Thailand; what struck home." He says Bangkok is a hot-bed of creativity right now. "Lots of things you didn't see five years ago." But part of the goal is to “let Pui go off” with his own ideas and creativity.
Dishes I'm most excited about? Honestly, everything. The flat nest of crispy fried rice noodles, served like crackers with a fermented tofu-pork dipping sauce, could be the new chips and dip. I'm seriously curious about the striped bass ceviche with that peanut brittle. I'm definitely going for the whole fried fish, chopped up, tossed in “miang kham dressing” and eaten taco-style, with fresh herbs, betel leaves, and lettuces for wrapping.
Only a fool would pass on a Ninsom joint curry, made here with prawns, lemongrass, and turmeric. The Thai-style seafood paella (a sweet homage to Ataula?) also intrigues: pork fat-fried rice on the bottom, dried tom yum on top (think General Tso's chicken, but with mussels). And I'm eager to try Erickson's mango and sticky rice kakigori, one of two house Japanese-style shaved ice desserts, a popular treat in Bangkok.
Bottom line: Phuket Cafe aims to be a food haunt and a mindset. In these times, we need a little of that.
Phuket Cafe, 1818 NW 23rd Place, @phuketcafepdx