If there were a montage of my life as a food obsessive, there’d be snaps of my happy face alongside the roasted chicken at Coquine; cuddling the chocolate banana cream pie at Papa Haydn; locking lips with an oyster topped with uni at Nodoguro.
Also in the memory banks: me nuzzling up to a few small bites of a juicy, smoky brisket from Matt Vicedomini (Matt’s BBQ), over which Earl Ninsom (Hat Yai, PaaDee, Langbaan) poured an achingly spicy jungle curry bursting with fish sauce and galangal during Feast Portland’s 2017 Smoked event. Word spread quickly about the hot new power couple, and they soon had the longest lines at the event.
I’m not sure if that was the night Eem was conceived, but that collaboration, with the addition of my favorite bartender, Eric Nelson (Shipwreck), has birthed what’s sure to top Portland’s 2019 restaurant lists. (The name comes from the first initials of Earl, Eric, and Matt.) Most nights, the line is already snaking out the door onto North Williams before Eem even opens. It’s worth the wait.
Your reward comes in the form of a one-page menu of Thai barbecue and curries that present a perfect balance of the fatty richness of West Texas with the bright and aggressive flavors of Thailand. Like chocolate and peanut butter, the flavors at Eem just make sense.
That jungle curry with brisket is back ($16), but even better (by a hair) is the white curry with brisket burnt-ends ($16), the caramelized meat bites luxuriating in a coconut and lemongrass bath so flavorful that I gasped before spooning more from a communal plate into my mouth. The curries are instant classics. Always order a curry. Try to share.
Plates arrive at a prodigious pace from a friendly staff, so order what sounds good, and keep adding as you see fit. A beet salad topped with coconut beet cream, herbs, and puffed jasmine rice ($10) is a great way to start, along with the Eem hot cauliflower ($8)—florets deep-fried to crispy correctness and dipped in hot sauce.
Pause for chopped BBQ fried rice ($8), a lush plate of long-grain Jasmine rice mixed with tamarind and shishito peppers, before turning to the meats. I stan a pork steak, and Eem’s traditional smoked cut is sliced thin and served with cool lettuce leaves to wrap, along with nahm prik noom (Thai green chile paste) and jaew (dried chile powder and fish sauce) dipping sauces ($14). It’s a *chef’s kiss* of crunchy veg, flavorful sauce, and marbled meat, and I want it all the time.
The baby back ribs ($8) are also a success, with Thai pickles and more jaew sauce, but unless you’re really committed to the sea, a smoked mackerel ($12) is a lot to take, with the addition of nahm jim seafood sauce to the already oily and pungent fish. I like it, but in the way I like some of my friend’s friends—I only wanna hang out sometimes.
Get your drink orders in early. They’re expensive ($12-30 for drinks to share) and take just as long as your first plates to arrive, but it’s a crime not to get at least one. I’ve been obsessed with Nelson’s sophisticated Tiki takes for a few years, as he’s taken his roving party popup, Shipwreck, to various ports around town. Classics like the Jesus & Tequila ($12; tequila, mezcal, lemon and lime, lime froyo, fancy salt, and “blessings”) are on the list, along with some new heavy-hitters.
Order a drink for two in a fugu mug, or hope your glass arrives with an immersible light dropped in, allowing for some great sipping selfies. I adore the Natural Wine ($13), a cocktail with Bolivian brandy, gentian (AKA bitter) liqueur, coconut cream, lemongrass, carrot, and lime—it’s weird, dry, and unlike anything else I’ve had, in the best way. Five non-alcoholic drinks ($5-12) take spirit-free cocktails—think soda, mango, lemon, and plum bitters or Coke with shoyu, maple, and cinnamon—to new levels.
That these three super-friends joined forces to feed Portland is a lightning strike of good eating fortune. Like their menu, Ninsom, Vicedomini, and Nelson’s particular styles blend in a way that we’re not likely to see again for a while. Go get in that line before they run out of brisket.