Best Restaurants 2022

Two Food Parties in One Space: Phuket Cafe & the New Langbaan

Thai tasting-menu destination Langbaan takes on new life inside the playful party atmosphere of Phuket Cafe in Northwest.

By Karen Brooks Photography by thomas teal November 29, 2022 Published in the December 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

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all it inspired or a crazy business plan. But two Thai restaurants with different missions and menus opened under one Northwest Portland roof this year. Phuket Cafe is inspired by staff food benders in Bangkok and southern Thailand. Langbaan v.2 (a new iteration of the nationally lauded east-side spot inside of Phuket Cafe) sends forth a refined Thai tasting menu engaged with Portland’s farmers market. What unites them? A posse of long-connected cooks, inventive bartenders, curated natural wines, and a bumping soundtrack.

The chef’s counter offers front-row seats to the kitchen

IMAGE: THOMAS TEAL

 

The vision is pure Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom: adventurous, collaborative, a little off-kilter. No one better parses how Thailand eats and how Portland eats than Ninsom. Add to the mix business partner Eric Nelson, the atmospheric merrymaker and bar wiz who helped turn Eem into an unstoppable force and our 2019 Restaurant of the Year. 

https://www.pdxmonthly.com/eat-and-drink/2019/10/eem-is-em-portland-monthly-em-s-2019-restaurant-of-the-year

They could have just carbon-copied Eem (or Ninsom’s Hat Yai or Paadee), and Northwest Portland would have bent the knee. 

Instead, we got two visions and one of Portland’s best new bars. The next-Gen White Russian lives here, a creamy whirl of black pepper–jacked vodka, turmeric golden milk, and crème de cacao. Even the Dude might laugh. 

One night’s Northern Thai tasting menu haul at Langbaan 

IMAGE: THOMAS TEAL

Phuket, open daily for dinner and weekend brunch, delivers some new notions—oysters laced with nam jin seafood sauce, crispy-salty pork belly bites, and a dramatic whole fried pompano, served as a salad dressed in peanuts, herbs, and chiles. Brunch is a keeper, backed by tea-syruped French toast, screaming yellow curried potatoes, and an aperol-meets-carrot juice drink named “A Refreshing Blend of Nihilism & Nature.” All that’s missing at Phuket: consistency.   

Langbaan is not new. But in its playful new habitat, infused with Phuket’s party vibe and a cozy industrial-mod design, it feels reinvented—a rock-’n’-roll Thai kitchen that comes to life with original cocktails, serious wines, and an engaged, fun-loving staff. 

Outdoor window seats

IMAGE: THOMAS TEAL

Themed menus, changing every month or two, blend old-school Thai dishes with modern ideas, free-wheeling Portland, and Oregon seasonality. Which is how you might find yourself spooning into a hulking bone marrow slathered in basil seeds between bites of Southern Thai oxtail,  chanterelle mushrooms, and playful tendon "chips."  Cooks, previously limited to convection burners at the original space, now cut loose over flaming grills. You might find fresh local huckleberries in your spicy papaya salad, or a grilled banana leaf semifreddo dessert that tastes like an inside-out doughnut. But every dish is rooted, somehow, in Thailand, Ninsom’s birthplace.

When it works, Langbaan is a holy crow experience, unlike any in the country. One night, that included a rare taste of ma hor, also known as "galloping horses": think Thai chicken meets PayDay bar, sweet, sweet, spicy, nutty, fantastic. Langbaan, it seems, is best when introducing us to lost and found Thai flavors. Some of the more modern concepts can seem adrift, in need of a flavor map. 

Curries can be hair-raising and eye-opening. One night's tangy gaeng luang flashed a gorgeous hunk of king salmon cooked barely past sashimi status, plus glistening roe, shredded ripe papaya, and tender taro stems. Soups are generally pretty stellar. One recent menus revealed a pho-like Northern Thai pork knuckle soup bobbing with pickled mustard greens and warm spices. Another, inspired by a high-end restaurant in Thailand, expressed coconut in every way: roasted coconut water, coconut-clam broth, roasted coconut meat, and sorrel-infused coconut oil. That said, a humble relish of minced beef, hotter than seven hells and just as joyful, can also steal the show. 

Where else can you eat Thai food this interesting while hoisting a cocktail called Candy Gram for Mango, its rim dripping with, all all things, salty, spicy, sweet-sour Chamoy sauce, a Mexican condiment. At a meal’s end recently, staffer Becca Nguyen asked: “How you feeling emotionally, spiritually?” Honestly? Pretty damn good. 1818 NW 23rd Pl, phuketcafepdx.comlangbaanpdx.com

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