The names behind the food and drink are all familiar to this city. The incarnation that resulted from the blending of the elements is not.
Akkapong "Earl" Ninsom is the restaurateur with the Midas touch behind Paadee, Langbaan and Hat Yai. Matt Vicedomini graced Portland with his now-legendary smoked meats served in, first, his eponymous food cart and, more recently, a taco truck named one of Bon Appétit's top 10 new restaurants in the country. And then there's Eric Nelson, who rose to the upper echelon of the local cocktail scene by serving as bar manager or consultant to such institutions as Laurelhurst Market and Expatriate as well as opening the tropical pop-up Shipwreck.
Put those three culinary giants together and you get Eem—a runaway freight train of a restaurant stoked by critical praise this year, including honors as WW's 2019 Supergroup of the Year.
In 2017, Ninsom and Vicedomini ignited Portland's annual Super Bowl of food—Feast—with a dish they created together. The jungle curry with brisket was a Vulcan mind meld of two masters extraordinarily adept with a certain set of flavor profiles.
"They partnered up at the Smoked event," explains Nelson, "where Matt made some of his usual kickass barbecue, and Earl made this jungle curry that was as hot as the surface of the sun. I would say that was the first time the idea that the combination of Thai ingredients with true Texas barbecue technique could work in harmony."
Besides whatever other accolades Eem earns this year, it could have just as easily taken home a gilded desk ornament for "Why the Hell Was This Never a Thing Before?" award.
The combination was daring in concept at the time, but now that it's out there, the union makes complete sense. What barbecue might lack in nuanced aromatics, colors and layers of texture, Thai cuisine delivers in spades. Conversely, expertly smoked protein provides a soul-satisfying foundation for Thai food to build on. It might be an overly American assertion, but there isn't a room that brisket and burnt ends can't tie together.
Beautiful, balanced and easily paired cocktails are the capper.
In addition to everything else he was up to, Nelson had been helping out with the beverage program at Langbaan, and things started coming together. Though Eem eventually landed on North Williams Avenue, it almost opened months earlier in another part of town. That deal didn't work out, but it gave the trio a chance to bond and conduct a little more research in one of the country's barbecue capitals.
"We pumped the brakes a little bit and decided to fuck off to Austin and see what they were doing with barbecue," says Nelson. "While we weren't trying to be an Austin restaurant, we had some great meals there and figured we would try to do our own thing with the concept. We also realized we all liked each other enough to give it a go and see where it took us."
That concept became Eem. The name serves double duty as the initials of its owners, as well as a phonetic spelling of a Thai word meaning "satiated." Almost overnight, Eem was a hit, creating lines of Portland brunch-sized proportions stretching down North Williams Avenue.
But pulling together elite talent and good intentions doesn't guarantee desired results. Ask Gary Payton and Karl Malone how well that 2004 Lakers experiment panned out. Often cited as the first NBA "superteam" with five hall-of-famers, they failed to develop the necessary chemistry and fell short of expectations. Creating a team of power players is a risky proposition, especially in the restaurant industry, where the whims and preferences of the masses prove constantly unpredictable.
"I can't be more honest about this," says Nelson. "We had no idea Eem would come around to the level it has. There is no way any restaurant owner in PDX can expect this sort of reception. We're constantly humbled and amazed by the support. It's pretty fucking mind-blowing."
But then, so is the experience at Eem.
The Eem motto, "Vacation Persuasion," is evident upon entry. Although there is a lot of tropical playfulness in what they do—just give their vibrant, cheeky website a once-over for proof—the décor is classy and understated: about a quarter-cup Caribbean, just enough to set the tone without overwhelming the space.
The lunch menu includes cornerstone items like the chopped barbecue fried rice ($10) and a sultry vegetable and mushroom-based red curry ($13). In prime time, offerings expand to include headliners like the barbecue pork steak ($16), spicy jungle curry with sliced brisket ($16), and white curry with brisket burnt ends ($17).
The beverage program at Eem brings just as much to the table. The piña colada ($13) with bee pollen and sea salt is the most sophisticated version of this rowdy spring break resort drink you'll ever encounter. Other offerings, like the No Danzig, No Cry… ($13), with Fernet, elderflower, strawberry, blackstrap rum, lemon and Thai basil, are standouts that also balance the entrees and soothe the post-curry palate. And the menu's Clear Headed section of booze-free bevvies is just as inventive.
With Eem firmly in place and firing on all cylinders, what's next for the team? Nelson says tantalizingly: "You'll need to wait and see. The ink's not quite dry, but we're definitely working on the next thing and excited to see where Eem can catapult us."