Rocketship Earl has catapulted skyward again.
Phuket Cafe, located inside the compact former Ataula space in Northwest Portland, is Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom’s newest restaurant and co-venture with bartender and cool hand Eric Nelson. After barely a month, lines down the block mark the daily opening hour, and waits can run long for Ninsom’s new, twisted take on Thai cuisine, a niche he owns.
Ninsom has made a decadelong run to the top of Portland’s restaurant ladder. He began in 2011, slinging simple Thai noodles at Mee-Sen on North Mississippi Avenue. Traditional Thai food followed at PaaDee, then haute Thai tasting menus at Langbaan in a “secret” backroom behind PaaDee.
Next came uncompromised southern Thai specialties in a fast-casual format at Hat Yai. Eem was the penultimate expression, a mind-bending but mellifluous melding of Thai flavors and Texas barbecue that drew raves from the get-go. Shortly before Phuket Cafe opened, Ninsom merited 2022 national finalist honors from the James Beard Foundation in the Outstanding Restaurateur category. With this latest launch, Ninsom should stand behind no one when the awards are handed out in Chicago on June 13.
It’s a challenge to categorize Phuket Cafe’s menu, so I asked Ninsom and Nelson. Ninsom says the theme is “dining through the eye of the local chef in Phuket and Bangkok.” This raises the question: What is the local chef in Phuket or Bangkok seeing these days? With a menu featuring oysters on the half shell, bacon bites, a pork chop, aged rib-eye steak, paella and smashed fingerling potatoes, among other unexpected fare, the Western influence is difficult to discount.
Nelson offered a more detailed response. Phuket Cafe, he said, “is a direct reflection of the creativity in Thailand right now as seen through the eyes of our MMFIC.” The acronym stands for “Main Motherfucker in Charge,” his affectionate moniker for Ninsom.
Reflecting on their recent travels around Thailand, Nelson added that “there’s a fuck-ton of food to experience, and we wanted to bring something very Thai, and maybe not so traditional, to the table.” Everything on the menu is something they ate “in some form or another” in Thailand.
The oysters ($18 for six, $35 a dozen) are emblematic of the sly creativity at work in the Phuket Cafe kitchen. Small, sweet Willapa Bay mollusks are paired with a ramekin of fiery green chile mignonette (nahm jim actually, which uses lime instead of vinegar) and another container with fried shallot. Remarkably, the brininess of the oyster stands up to these condiments, and the combination makes for a bracing beginning.
An equally splendid opening course is striped bass ceviche ($15), in which green chiles and lime once again provide flavor, power and the acidic element that “cooks” the fish. Peanut brittle pieces are strewn on top for fun. Still another must-have starter: muu kua grua ($9), a habit-forming bowl of well-rendered chunks of bacon served with makrut lime, threads of Thai chile and raw shallot. This is also offered at brunch ($14) with fried eggs and sticky rice.
Another highlight is miang plaa jaramed ($24), a whole, fried pompano topped with a mélange of shallots and herbs, doused in a dressing that veers from sweet to tart to tangy. The saltwater fish is accompanied by betel and romaine leaves for DIY wrap-making.
The standout among the mains is the pork chop ($42), a massive 18-ounce Tails & Trotters cut, sliced from the bone for service. The bone arrives, too, for those like me who simply must gnaw away every juicy morsel. The accompanying addictive dunk is an umami-blasted blend of fish sauce and chopped shallot, garlic and grilled tomato. Small piles of toasted ground rice and powdered red chile, sliced shallot and green onion, herbs and lime add even deeper dimension to the dish. Diners are urged to mix up these condiments, so that every bite can realize a full field of flavor. I can’t recommend this porcine masterpiece highly enough. Though there is no prize for taking it down solo—it is an achievement for which good eaters will strive. There is no shame in sharing, however.
For lighter eaters, another solid but quirky choice is the mussel-crowned Thai paella ($22), really a rendition of a pork fat fried rice and dry seafood tom yum from southern Thailand served in holdover paella pans from Ataula. It’s a toothsome, if pragmatic homage.
For dessert, which is mandatory, the Thai tea kakigori ($12) is a no-brainer. A Taiwanese shave ice machine behind the bar produces feather-light shards that envelope chunks of toasted brioche and grass jelly. This is drizzled with the tea syrup, creating a dramatic sweet-and-airy snowball of distinction.
As Eem was in 2019, Phuket Cafe is for 2022: a compelling take on nontraditional Thai cuisine that no one could have envisioned, except of course the MMFIC.
EAT: Phuket Cafe, 1818 NW 23rd Place, 503-781-2997, phuketcafepdx.com. 5-10 pm Monday-Friday, 10 am-2 pm and 5-10 pm Saturday-Sunday.