PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood is getting a taste of Thai Chinese cuisine inspired by one of the largest Chinatowns in the world.
Portland bar and restaurant veterans Akkapong Earl Ninsom, Eric Nelson, Kyle Webster and Sam Smith opened Yaowarat on Southeast Stark Street in early October. The restaurant is named after the Bangkok Chinatown, which the restaurant owners describe as “a maze of seafood stalls and street vendors, temples, and bars, all branching off of Yaowarat Road.”
“It’s the place that I grew up eating both from college days and after I started working in the city,” Ninsom said. “There’s always something happening from five in the morning until late night. So, anytime I want something that’s in the different hours or Thai Chinese, I would go to that area to get something very simple as street food, sometimes we have family gatherings… There’s a lot going on and offerings in that neighborhood.”
Over the last couple of years, the co-owners took trips to Yaowarat where they would find inspiration behind the dishes they’d bring to Portland — including salty limeade, beef shank and tendon curry, and salted fish fried rice.
“We have a lack of Chinese restaurants in general in Portland,” Ninsom said. “This is the cuisine at least I know what the food is and know how to make it.”
“I remember the first time we went to Yaowarat and talked about opening a Chinatown restaurant I wasn’t a believer at first because I thought it was all going to be huge river prawns and blood clams and I was like, ‘I don’t know if people are going to eat that.’ But then when we started to venture more into Thai Chinese food and cuisine over there, you start to realize there’s so many similarities to what you’re eating here in America’s Chinese food, it’s just finished with Thai ingredients or in Thai style,” Nelson said.
“We would go eat places and if something really struck a chord and it’s something we remembered and talked about the next day, we’d be like, ‘Okay, we need to go back here,'” Nelson added. “There’s a lot of dishes that we ate there that we didn’t put on the menu. We have this huge backlog of dishes that we can put on the menu anytime.”
Two other Yaowarat chefs who are also Thai-Chinese and grew up eating the cuisine, helped develop the menu and know food “like the back of their hand,” Ninsom furthered.
“What’s cool about this place is you could probably go on YouTube and find some video that would lead you to one of the restaurants that we’re trying to honor with the food here. So, rather than having to take that plane trip all the way to Bangkok, we have it here,” Nelson said.
In addition to the Bangkok-inspired food, Ninsom says they also wanted the space to feel like the city that inspired it all, adding, “once you come in, you feel like you’re in a different place.”
During one of their trips to the city, they brought team members from Each Other to help conceptualize Yaowarat’s interior design — bringing back lanterns and artwork for the restaurant.
“We overwhelmed them with Chinatown when they got to Bangkok with us because we wanted the restaurant to feel like Chinatown and to not be something like a random Portlander went online and Googled Chinatown Bangkok. We really wanted them to have the tactile feeling of everything from the smells, to the cobblestone, the messed-up streets, to the different painted gates to all the different weird chachkies we’ve got all over the restaurant,” Nelson said. “It was just a matter of immersing them in something that we’d been a part of so we can have this feeling here.”
Yaowarat is currently open Wednesday-Sunday, but the co-owners hope to be open seven nights a week by the end of the month.