At the opening on October 6, four culinary stars will bring Bangkok’s Chinatown street food to Yaowarat

Occasionally, the restaurant’s opening screams “Holy Smoke.” For example, this could be Portland’s next big thing. Right now, that honor belongs to the long-awaited Yaowarat. Opening date is Friday, October 6th in the former Lazy Susan space at 7937 SE Stark St.

Expect a Thai-Chinese establishment like no other. One of the reasons: it is difficult to find this cuisine, much less an entire menu dedicated to it, outside of Thailand. Yaowarat is a teeming haven of old merchants and neon-lit shops in Bangkok’s Chinatown, and home to Thailand’s large Chinese community. Why dishes from this street food paradise rarely make it to the United States remains a mystery.

Nothing will be invented here. Yaowarat aims to serve food as close as possible to the late-night stalls, woks and noodle joints that inspire it. Think the vibrancy of Thai cuisine meets the rich, smooth and comforting feel of Chinese cuisine, from noodles to curries. But the drinking will be Portland-esque, with Thai beer towers, fancy cocktails and what the establishment calls “a fancy champagne menu, just because it sounds fun.”

Behind the project are four of Portland’s leading restaurant thinkers, starting with independent Thai food mogul Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom. Yaowarat was Ninsom’s hangout spot in high school and college, where he still returns to accompany friends on impromptu excursions.

He is teaming up again with Eric Nelson, his partner in Eem, Langbaan and Phuket Café. Nelson brings the art of fun drinks and a fun atmosphere. The duo’s resume already includes two former members. Portland Monthly Restaurants of the year. Ninsom’s portfolio extends to the popular areas of Hat Yai and Paadi. Yaowarat will be his sixth Thai restaurant in Portland, and no two are alike.

Partner Kyle Linden Webster shares his love of Southeast Asian flavors at Expatriate, a beloved bar since 2013 that he co-owns with his James Beard medalist wife, Naomi Pomeroy. Webster is not only a musicologist and vinyl collector, but also a heady and methodical cocktail ace. He and Nelson will share the duties of bartender and host, which in itself makes Yaowarat an instant intrigue.

Another culinary researcher, fellow chef and Sweedeedee alumnus Sam Smith will be a must-have in the kitchen. His Instagram feed serves as a guide to lesser-known restaurants.

But mostly, Yaowarat is a chance for four close friends to work, spend and create together. The dishes reflect week-long binges in Bangkok, where they ate until they were “dropping over in pain” in search of Thai-Chinese dishes not typically seen in Portland or America.

Their collaborative spirit extends to the 70-seat auditorium. Attend a Thai-Chinese surprise party. Eye-popping paper lamps adorned with Thai and Chinese messages of prosperity hang above cozy tables like planet-sized balloons. The bar glows red, like something out of a film noir. In the “Bath of Chaos,” a red lantern flashes and spins over Webster’s handmade wallpaper I made collages from Thai film posters, photographs and graphics from old books.

Yaowarat will be open for dinner from Wednesday to Sunday, for walk-ins only. Expect about 20 dishes ranging from $9 to $17, inspired by the whirlwind of flavors in Bangkok’s Chinatown, from traditional Chinese to Thai and everything in between. “It’s a spectrum,” Smith says. “It’s a mix of ingredients, what the Chinese immigrants brought and what they found. It’s spicy, but not spicy.”

Ninsom provided the initial plan of action, but they soon began to notice something that looked amazing. “Earl opened a lot of doors,” Nelson says. “We had the advantage of a secret handshake. As friendly as he is to everyone here, he knows 10 times more people in Bangkok. He knows where to eat and what to get.” They ate day and night, scanning the entire menu for hallelujah moments, returning again and again to eat their favorite options, just to be sure. “The more you go to Thailand and dig deeper, the more you realize that Thai Chinese food is where it’s at,” says Nelson.

Meanwhile, Webster, known for stocking two turntables at the Expatrate restaurant, scoured Bangkok’s record stores and brought back about 100 albums with him, along with a plan to create unique playlists for the restaurant. “Every song will be copied from a vinyl record,” Nelson promises. “Thai disco, Thai indie rock and a lot of traditional music.”

Their biggest problem: menu scaling. “We wrote: “We have have it on at least 50 things,” Nelson laughs. A few people who took the first step? Crispy cottage cheese dumplings with beans; stir-fried noodles with pork sauce and Chinese broccoli on crispy chow mein; and hungry hey tod seafood omelettes with Thai sriracha.

The Chinese black olive pork on the menu reflects the general path: The dish of fried minced pork and stewed Chinese olives originated in mainland China. It then made its way to Thailand, where it’s topped with lime, shallots, Thai chilies and crunchy garlic.

“I was lucky to be a part of it, to be immersed in a foreign culture,” says Smith, who will be sharpening his palate with Thai Chinese chef Kanokwan “Nok” Jinunthuya and Hat Yai alum Thaweesak “Tee” Tisompong, whom Ninsom met in Bangkok. In 2013, Tee was the “wok” at the one Michelin star restaurant Nahm. “Ti and Nok teach me what they know. This is an amazing relationship. My background in running kitchens, their background in food,” Smith says.

Cocktails are designed to suit the mood, along with zero-proof beers (Nelson is a sober bartender) and plenty of champagne, Webster’s obsession, from Dom Pérignon to small producers. I had my eye on the Tingling Daiquiri, flavored with Szechuan pepper syrup.

The ups and downs of Portland’s food scene don’t discourage them. Yaowarat is a hands-on and inclusive project for everyone.

“Yes, there is stress,” Webster says. “However, we are not on the Supreme Court; we are not surgeons. But we take this seriously. We are here to receive and care. I came into this business to share my sense of hospitality with everyone who walks through the door. That’s why I’ll be there every night we’re open.”

Yaowarat7937 SE Stark Street

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