Portland’s Phuket Cafe is a master class in modern West-Coast Thai.

Thai Food and Cocktail Spread at Phuket Cafe
Thomas J. Story

The aroma of rambutan-wood charcoal envelops you the moment you walk into Phuket Cafe. It’s a sensory experience that’s immediately evocative of Thailand’s night markets, but one look at the crowd and you’re definitely in Portland. Green neon lights up the bar like the inside of a tuk tuk, and tattooed, puffer-clad diners clink Fernet and Thai-tea-spiked cocktails reminiscent of the iconic Spanish coffees at Huber’s. Thai funk undulates on the sound system, and a convivial banter hums, underscoring the restaurant’s unique conversation between East and West.

It’s this sort of playful swagger that owners Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom and Eric Nelson have become known for around these parts of the PNW: a living, breathing dialogue with what’s happening in the next generation of kitchens in Thailand. Short of booking a ticket to Bangkok, this is the closest you can get to the country’s pulsing dining scene. It’s a delicious, thrilling, immersive experience that transports you to what’s actually happening in Southeast Asia. Think of it as a postcard from the team’s travels, exploring spots where chefs and locals who live there eat when they’re off the clock.

Akkapong Ninsom and Eric Nelson
Phuket Cafe owners Akkapong Ninsom and Eric Nelson

Thomas J. Story

It’s a welcome foil to the idea that Thai food has been relatively fixed in the minds of diners who haven’t ventured from the greatest hits served at your standard corner takeout spot. Phuket Cafe is different. Really, really different. Sure, you’ll find a smattering of curries that you know and love. And dishes addictively fire on all cylinders, playing with every element of your sensory perception. But instead of finding a menu riddled with classics like pad thai, you’ll instead find Penang curry that’s made with 21-day dry-aged steak, locally grown delicata squash, and Swiss chard. And your roti—a Muslim flatbread often sold in street food stalls throughout Southern Thailand—will be made with beets, and topped with cured salmon roe and coconut crème fraîche, a nod to Portland’s robust Russian community. Or Thai paella made with tom yum rice and wood-fired seafood, a tribute to the acclaimed Spanish restaurant Ataula that was housed here before.

“The idea was to do [a concept based on] a tourist city in Thailand. You go to Bangkok and the South [i.e, Phuket] to experience vacation,” says Ninsom. “Both cities have interesting, creative food scenes with chefs from around the world cooking there. And the grill section, the live fire, is really important.”

Thai Cookbooks

Thomas J. Story

Ninsom is no newcomer to the Portland scene. He started out over 10 years ago slinging simple Thai noodles at Mee-Sen, and has since grown an empire that includes seven restaurants whose themes range from Texas-Thai barbecue mashup at Eem and fried chicken at Hat Yai to a fine-dining experience at Langbaan, which is now housed at a chef’s counter inside the dining room at Phuket Cafe. The menu they’ve created for the latter is everything you want to eat when you’re in Portland—comforting, cozy, and definitively punk rock.

“Until recently, most Thai restaurants have operated in a certain style, but when you travel there you see a variety of cuisine from each community and area that’s so different,” he says. “We really get to know the cities outside of the famous spots.”

Phuket Cafe Portland Bar Bottles on Shelves

Thomas J. Story

In Bangkok, like any great city, there’s so much more going on than what meets the eye. And Phuket Cafe is a brilliant snapshot of that. Everything from the lighting to the vintage glassware is a full-blown mood that brings diners into the back bars in Bangkok, away from the buckets of Mekhong whiskey on Khaosan Road, and into the neighborhoods and communities that are the fabric of the city. It’s all the result of a lifetime of travel back and forth to Ninsom’s family’s motherland along with exhaustive R&D trips that sometimes included eating upwards of 10 meals a day.

“I don’t consider it fusion. It’s more of a classic mix of cultures,” says Ninsom. “It really makes us feel good that people could experience that without traveling to Thailand. Not everyone has a chance to do that, you know. And even if you do, you might not be able to get to see this type of cuisine.”

Phuket Cafe Portland Exterior Logo

Thomas J. Story

That flows right down to both the interior and exterior design. The greenery-filled dining room is a plant daddy’s dream. The team worked with women-led designers called Each Other to create an outdoor dining area that resembles a vintage Thai train car, complete with luggage racks and a six-person wooden booth at the caboose.

“The train is the most common way to get around in Thailand, and the most affordable. It’s the best way to get around to see the country, going through the rice fields, seeing the ocean—it’s a fun way of travel,” he says. “It’s open air, the windows are down. It’s a fun vibe that we wanted to have in the restaurant.” And it’s a welcome one. We could all use a vacation. Here are some signature Phuket dishes that will instantly transport you there.

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