Yaowarat Brings the Thai-Chinese Flavors of Bangkok to Montavilla

The latest restaurant from Earl Ninsom and crew is a must-try in town.

Yaowarat (Brian Brose)

Yaowarat, the latest restaurant from Earl Ninsom and crew, is an extraordinary place. It embodies the swirling sights, sounds, smells and, best of all, food of faraway Bangkok’s Chinatown, which is also called Yaowarat after the main street that runs through it.

This is no coincidence. Ninsom and his partners flew off to Bangkok, where Ninsom was born and raised, to immerse themselves in the Thai-Chinese cuisine that distinguishes this part of the city from anywhere else in the world. The result became Yaowarat here in Portland.

The best example is the transcendent soup guay jub ($17), a frequent special listed on a supplemental menu card when it is available, probably leaving the menu for the most part once the weather fully warms up. It begins with pork broth simmered for 12 hours. The broth is laced with a generous quantity of finely ground white pepper, plenty of garlic, and a pantry of other spices. The pepper is a tongue blaster, but the broth’s complexity greets the palate in pleasing layers. Scrolled rice noodles are added to the broth along with slices of crispy-skinned pork belly, fish cake and vegetables. You might also notice crunchy bits of fried pork fat sprinkled over the top.

Another must-have are chive cakes ($11), a handful of 1-inch cubes served with a lightly sweetened, thick black soy dipping sauce. The cakes rely on finely chopped Chinese chives, which have a mild garlic flavor, combined with rice and tapioca flours and hot water. After a long rest and a round in the deep fryer, the cakes come out hot, crunchy, chewy and golden, their principal virtue.

There are really no weak spots on the Yaowarat menu. The portion sizes are moderate, so a foursome can make some serious headway through all the options. The kuay teow kua gai ($18) is another peak experience featuring thick chewy rice noodles, chicken, pork fat, egg and chilies quick-fried in a blazing hot wok. It is my favorite. The mapo tofu ($18) is made with both traditional minced pork and tofu, plus beef, flavored with fermented chili-and-black bean sauce and enhanced further with numbing Sichuan peppercorns. For more timid diners, there is vegetable fried rice ($16), elevated with egg, taro, gingko nuts and the classic Thai chili-and-fish sauce flavoring, prik nam pla. A “Chinese sashimi” dish ($18) will also suit some diners. Co-owner Eric Nelson says it’s something he enjoyed in Bangkok’s Yaowarat. It wasn’t bad; it just seems like an ill fit with the rest of the menu.

The overarching brilliance of Yaowarat resides in its management team and the intensive research conducted to decide both the food and feel of the restaurant. Ninsom is at the top of the pyramid. His experience and acuity are well documented. Nelson, who has been part of successful ventures for more than a decade, including with Ninsom at Eem and Phuket Café, is also a creative force and steadying presence. Add Kyle Webster from Expatriate, whose flair for design helps define Yaowarat’s distinctive environment, and Sam Smith behind the scenes in the kitchen, and you have a titanic pool of talent running this restaurant. It doesn’t hurt that the folks working the floor, most local industry veterans, have an excellent grasp of hospitality, too.

Overall, Yaowarat is a top-flight addition to your must-try Portland restaurants catalog. Even more so if a trip to Bangkok isn’t in the cards.

EAT: Yaowarat, 7937 SE Stark St., yaowaratpdx.com. 5–10 pm Monday–Friday, 11 am–2 pm and 5–10 pm Saturday, 11 am–2 pm and 4:30–9 pm Sunday.

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