The Minds Behind Eem and Langbaan Ignite a New Thai Food Experience with Phuket Café
Phuket Café is a Thai restaurant. Beyond that, labels are off. Greeting you at the entrance: Chazz Madrigal, your tattooed bartender in a massive cowboy hat, arms going up and down like pistons, as Morrissey bumps overhead. He’s a dive-bar pro and a DJ with his own following.
Drinks are from their own planet. Consider the Coffin Maker: a lip-smacking conflation of mezcal, cucumber cane vinegar, and lime crowned with, of all things, fried shallots and cilantro sprigs. Imagine a smoky margarita eating a Thai cucumber salad. Riding on top: a chile pepper hot enough to fog the inside of your glasses. It’s now on my death row wish list.
Meanwhile, dinners are a random collection of flavors you might encounter on a food bender in Bangkok or in places where the locals eat in Phuket. So what exactly is Phuket Café? After five visits to this highly anticipated spot, opened in March, I’m still not entirely sure. It’s new and evolving at warp speed.
This much is clear: The city’s best new bar has arrived, with its own taste spectrum, unexpected and out-of-the-box. The food menu includes intriguing snacks rarely seen stateside, entrées that swerve from prawn curry to an 18-ounce Tails and Trotters pork chop, and enough heat to make your heart laugh and nose run. Honestly, I know not why diners would come here for a dry-aged rib eye platter, backed by a few Thai accoutrements. Not that the meat isn’t tasty—it’s just the least interesting thing here. Then again, looking around, half the room is eating it, so what do I know?
The project comes from chef and restaurateur Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom, whose Thai-defining Portland restaurants include the supernova Langbaan and Hat Yai. Business partner Eric Nelson, a merrymaker and bartender supreme, helped Ninsom turn Eem into an unstoppable Thai- barbecue-tropical drink hot spot and Portland Monthly’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year.
Soon, they plan to airdrop Langbaan—formerly known for intimate dinners in a hidden room inside Ninsom’s Paadee—right into the Phuket party action, with reservation-only seats and traditional cooking over old-school Thai charcoal pots. Langbaan chef Kitsanaruk “Pui” Ketkuaviriyanont is overseeing both menus, collaborating with Ninsom. This could be the most fascinating food
experiment in Portland.
For sure, there are wrinkles. The salt level, at times, is high enough to corrode metal. And sometimes flavors can recede or disappear. But already Phuket is a blast, an excitement, an original concept, a Thai restaurant we haven’t seen before.
Jump right in with a heady surprise: ceviche with peanut brittle. You’ve had cured raw fish before ... but never like this. The vinegar-“cooked” striped sea bass, parked over crunchy fennel, drizzled with sneaky heat and fresh mint, brandishes the hard snap of caramel-sugared peanut candy, shattered and scattered across the top. Inspiration comes from a restaurant in eastern Thailand. This is the stuff of culinary lore, sensuous and daring.
Snacks are a high point—get a collection of them. Curry puffs, stuffed with a warm mash of spiced potatoes and squash, are hip handpies in gorgeous, super-flaky crusts. Plunge them in peanut sauce primed with red curry paste and coconut cream, between bites of cucumber relish. I could eat them every day. You also want the squiggly fried rice noodle crackers, used to scoop up a heap of pork crumbles hot enough to part your hair on the opposite side.
The whole fried pompano is a major treat, served head-on and crispy-tailed in a large golden bowl. The meat is scooped out, fried, then returned in neatly sliced fillets to the center, everything dressed in whole peanuts, herbs, lime, chiles, and a sweet-hot syrup. Bundle it all in lettuce and betel leaves—including the prized crunchy caramelized fins.
Other observations so far: Pandan cheese roti is a forgettable quesadilla without much discernible pandan or cheese, and the eggplant dish, clobbered in chile crisp, is a one-note misfire. Deep-fried curry-glazed potatoes, available for dinner or lunch, were screaming good one night, like spicy wild-child jojos, their skins full of titanic crackle. On another night, the flavor was there, but not the fierce crunch. Meanwhile, pastry chef Maya Erickson’s kakigori, two Instagram-ready shaved ice mountains, toting the likes of egg yolk jam, torched meringue, or mango sticky rice, will surely be a summer hit.
Weekend brunch, with its curry sets and puffy fried Thai eggs, is gambling that Portland is ready for a playful-serious Asian breakfast. I’m obsessed with the impressionistic Thai French toast—more crispy toast than French custard, savory than sweet, its top inlaid with the shock of fried shallots, piped domes of kabocha squash, and Thai tea syrup. Make that kaya custard bread soak more evident and this could be one of the dishes of the year.
No Bloody Marys or lattes here. But you can get a superb, super-jacked blend of sloe gin liqueur and strongly brewed Thai tea, served hot with a float of Fernet cream. It could charge your iPhone.
The room is a charmer, mixing vintage-modern Thailand and industrial Northwest in a cozy sea of mini-booths, counter seats, lush green walls, sleek wood, and rugged beams. Outside, a pink-and-red train-car shaped structure shows what streetside eating can look like: architectural with mood lighting and colorful personality. Service is sweet and enthusiastic. (“It’s so much fun seeing people eat eyeballs for the first time,” chirped one server, when fielding a question about the pompano.)
Curated music is integral to the gestalt. Nelson and Madrigal’s ever-changing soundtrack segues from jazz to Esan country to Mexican metal to insider psychedelic rock covers. They sample their own collection but also hunt for playlists by hip-hop musicians and DJs to find music even they haven’t heard before. Current obsession: playlists from chef-rapper Action Bronson.
Bottom line: Phuket Café aims to be a food haunt and a mindset. The name is something of an inside staff joke. Ninsom, a Bangkok native, has a passion for Southern Thai food and secret haunts in Phuket. But also, confides Nelson: “Earl laughs every time someone says ‘Fuck it.’ He loves the idea of people saying ‘Fuck it, let’s go to Phuket.’” The times call for nothing less.
Phuket Cafe, 1818 NW 23rd Place, phuketcafepdx.com