What is “cocaine Thai” food? If visions of rock stars downing plates of pad Thai in between glugs of good wine come to mind, you’re not far off.
That’s the concept, or at least part of the idea behind chef Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market Sahm in Venice. The restaurant, which opens Friday, is his third in Los Angeles (“sahm” means three in Thai), after the original Night + Market in West Hollywood and Night + Market Song in Silver Lake. Night + Market Sahm is located in the former Siam Best space on Lincoln Boulevard, just north of West Washington Boulevard.
Since taking over the space next to his parents’ Thai restaurant Talésai on Sunset Boulevard in 2010, and turning it into the first Night + Market, the NYU film school grad has been a finalist for a James Beard Award (multiple times), was named Food & Wine magazine’s best new chef in 2016, and recently came out with the cookbook “Night + Market: Delicious Thai Food to Facilitate Drinking and Fun-Having Amongst Friends.” He’s a fixture on Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list, and he can also be seen on Instagram talking pad Thai with his “noodle bae” Gwyneth Paltrow.
Yenbamroong’s new restaurant still has the Night + Market vibe. Translation: hot pink walls, vinyl floral-print table cloths, a neon sign that says “larb king” and another that reads “hey hey my my.” Hanging plastic vines studded with plastic strawberries (they were picked up on his wife Sarah’s first trip to Thailand) mark the opening to one dining area while pink beads flank the main entrance. This restaurant has a large fish tank that splits the dining room, which seats 70, in two. Yenbamroong plans to have the restaurant eventually open for lunch and dinner, but for now he’ll start with dinner, open every night except Tuesdays.
Recently, Yenbamroong took a break from prepping his new restaurant to chat about not wanting to open another Thai restaurant, what he means when he says “cocaine Thai,” and that beloved crispy rice salad. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
You’re about to open your third restaurant.
It seems like it’s been an endless wait for it. When I got the Food & Wine best new chef thing they asked if there was anything I wanted to announce and this is something I wanted to get out there, even though it wasn’t really ready. We were supposed to open in June 2016. People have been waiting for it.
What can people expect?
I announced we’re going to do this cocaine Thai concept. Which is my way of saying, “Let’s put some sort of romance, fun, sexiness back into so-called ethnic cooking.” It seems like the past five years or so people have become really in tune with Thai food and knowledgeable and it somehow got boring. You look at photos of like the original Spago or Mr. Chow and it was always so much fun. Then you look at stuff now and it feels like a seminar in a school or something. Cocaine Thai is my way of describing the last time Asian food felt really splashy.
What will that look like?
We have stuff like our Peking duck pizza. It’s completely insane. It’s straight out of my childhood. It’s roti we fry up in a way so it feels like it’s between a wrap at a Peking duck restaurant and a kimchi pancake — you can’t hold it flat like a New York slice of pizza. A duck sauce that is basically my grandma’s recipe that she used to serve with a fried duck dish at Talésai back in the day, and then cheese and wonton crisps and sambal and green onion. It’s totally fun. Totally not Thai. And sort of silly and kind of whimsical.
So it’s Thai but not Thai?
I want people to have fun again with food. I got to a point where the value of something in a Thai restaurant, in our restaurant, was how closely it resembled something thousands of miles away. That shouldn’t be the only thing. We’re in Venice. We’re in Silver Lake. We’re in West Hollywood. What speaks to those places isn’t exactly the same as what speaks to people in Thailand.
I had this other concept I was going to open called Night + Market Seafood and this essentially is that. We’re going to have a bunch more seafood than we do at the other spots. We have scallop sashimi with XO sauce. We have a killer curry that’s conceived as a vegan curry. It’s sweet potatoes and yams that we steam and smash and fry and do it in a massaman curry sauce and put toasted coconut shards on it.
Not exactly traditional.
To me, that’s like an L.A. dish. I always say that Night + Market is an L.A. restaurant. It’s not a Thai restaurant. We had a kitchen staff meeting the other day and I told everyone I want the vibe to be like a Wolfgang Puck airport restaurant. It’s for everybody. We’re also making a stir fry that’s nappa cabbage and rice cakes and vegan fish sauce made with fermented pineapple and chiles.
But there will be crispy rice, right?
Yes. Most of the menu will be there, but we have a small team so it’s just a couple of things we will shelve. It’s a very young team. It’s me and my sous-chef Intu [Kornnawong]. She’s killer. She came from Rustic Canyon and Outerlands in San Francisco but she’s from the Northeast [of Thailand]. And then out front we have Peggy [Keplinger]. She’s the GM and came from State Bird [Provisions] in San Francisco. She’s a wine person.
Will the wine program mimic the other location and be primarily natural wines?
I haven’t really cataloged all the bottles but I would probably say that every one we have now is a natural wine. Which I consider is being a wine that is farmed well, organically, whether certified or not; taking care not to put too much influence on stuff while making the wine.
We’re going to continue the focus on magnums. We’re a party restaurant. That’s the way we want people drinking. We have wine that you can drink in five minutes. Wine that you can drink hard and fast, that’s not going to weigh you down.
The two things for us besides having the food be good and addictive are wine and hospitality. I felt for a while Night + Market was becoming a restaurant dominated by foodies. And I don't want that. Nothing against so-called foodies. But It’s a restaurant for everybody. For people who have other interests. There are people who don’t know who Jonathan Gold is. Whose worlds don’t revolve around checking Eater.com in the morning. I don’t feel like they should be excluded. You don’t have to be in the know to eat here.
In the immediate future, I’m doing a Chinese New Year dinner with my grandma. She’s getting older. She taught me how to cook so I’m always looking for opportunities to cook with her. I’m doing a big dinner with Georgian winemaker friends. Then for Food Bowl we’re doing a thing with Andy Ricker.
People ask us all the time when we are opening something in New York. I don't have any plans to ever open up there. I used to live there for eight years and I hated it and that’s why I left. Now when I get to visit and hangout — it’s fun and it’s exciting. But beyond that I love L.A. and everything that comes with it so I’m pretty much staying put with the three restaurants.