Yes, this is “real Thai food”. Why this new Oakland restaurant is a star, including burgers


At first glance, Jo’s Modern Thai can be easily stereotyped as a dime Asian fusion restaurant. Maybe it’s the lemongrass burger and lime makrut mayonnaise that puts off fans of “real” Thai food, or maybe the neon-accented decor that leans into the vibe of the boba store. I hear rejections of restaurants like Jo’s all the time from food lovers who seek “authenticity” – a “real” dining experience untouched by the world around him. They could take a quick glance and walk away. But that would be a mistake. What’s really interesting about Jo’s is the way he carries the tension that exists between adaptation and tradition: opened by a second generation Thai restaurant owner with a fun California-Thai menu, he s ‘strives to create an inclusive and truly Oakland-style approach to Thai. American kitchen.

The restaurant’s drunken noodle dish ($ 19) is a good place to start. The kitchen grabs an elastic tangle of wheat noodles in a wok with a few usual Thai American restaurant suspects like oyster sauce, onion, and bell pepper. The noodles, however, are instant ramen, from the popular Southeast Asian brand Mama. And pieces of smoked brisket act like protein, a Texan-style barbecue addition from Temescal’s Smokin ‘Woods BBQ. The fatty meat and wok hei work well together to enunciate the charred flavor in each bite, offset by the tangy Thai basil and young green peppercorns.

It’s an interpretation of drunken noodles very similar to the food you could make from things in your fridge while intoxicated, if you had barbecue scraps on hand and the expert skills of cooks. of Jo’s when it comes to wok preparation.

The pork laab burger (Isaan-fried pork laab patty, lettuce, cucumber, herbs, shallot, laab dressing, lime mayo makrut on a brioche bun) at Jo’s Modern Thai in Oakland.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Jo’s chef Intu-on Kornnawong from Isaan explained her settings: While instant ramen is an anomaly for drunken noodles in the United States, she says many of her street food stalls favorites in Thailand use Mama noodles for the dish. The brisket, on the other hand, is a personalized recipe. She worked with Smokin ‘Woods to make sure the fully cooked meat stays tender after a trip to the wok station.

There is a clear connection between this dish and the pastrami pad kee mao served at the Southern Californian Night + Market Sahm, which Kornnawong helped open in 2018. A tribute to a historic Los Angeles deli, the noodle dish is like an outstretched hand towards the community, a demonstration of cultural compromise. Although the style is different, Kornnawong Breast Noodles work the same: here’s something you love, plus something I love. It’s an idea that makes the menu, and the restaurant as a whole, a gesture of generosity.

Remixing Thai cuisine has always been the intention. Restaurant owner Kao Saelee grew up here and worked at Berkeley’s no-frills family-run restaurant, the Racha Cafe, popular with college students looking for affordable pad thai and curries. For years, he dreamed of opening a place like Jo’s, where people from all walks of life, including the various residents of the Laurel, could feel welcome. “I wanted to create something that was what my generation of Asian Americans want,” he said.

Jo's Modern Thai in Oakland.

Jo’s Modern Thai in Oakland.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

The name itself is a tribute to Saelee’s wife Jo, who knew very little about Thai food and culture before the two started dating. Dishes like Breast Drunk Noodles, which bridge the gap between kitchens, are for her – and for anyone who hasn’t yet dived head first into Thai cuisine.

Another gateway for newcomers might be the American-looking burger ($ 15), with Isaan flavors all over the place. It really is a fried pork patty – laab moo tod – flavored with lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce and lime makrut mayonnaise. Dense flavors haunt the palate long after the hamburger is gone, with its brioche bun that reduces volume just right.

There’s also a ride on a michelada, which is part of an inventive cocktail list from former Starline Social Club bar manager Tayler Sampson. Called the Final Lamiat ($ 11), the drink replaces the traditional Clamato and hot sauce with an intense dose of nam jim, the spicy Thai sauce with strong notes of lime, chili peppers and cilantro. It pairs well with just about everything on the menu.

The space, like the menu, is a major change from the vibe of Racha. While Racha’s plentiful seating and clean serving style work well for the many student banquets he hosts, Jo’s is more intimate. The dining room has the vibe of a beachside cafe, with neon signage (including a neon monkey), tropical plant patterns, and gleaming white tables. Although the restaurant is in a working-class Laurel neighborhood, it could easily be found in the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The squid salad (Monterey calamari, herbs, rice powder, chili powder, sesame shrimp cracker) at Jo's Modern Thai in Oakland.

The squid salad (Monterey calamari, herbs, rice powder, chili powder, sesame shrimp cracker) at Jo’s Modern Thai in Oakland.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Saelee and Kornnawong are certainly not the only ones in the country to play with Thai cuisine in this way. Several new wave restaurants have made a name for themselves, for example on excellent burgers. At Eem in Portland, Ore., A smashburger with American cheese pairs well with tempura-fried vegetables and a Thai chili paste dip. At Los Angeles’ Jitlada, the off-menu Jazz Burger comes with Thai basil, minced red onion, tomato, and an iceberg lettuce leaf for wrapping. New York’s Thai Diner makes a classic American burger alongside Thai-Ukrainian stuffed cabbage tom kha.

But Jo’s still feels like it can only be in Oakland. This shows in dishes such as the squid salad ($ 17). By far the best item on the menu, it has the telltale creaminess of Monterey squid, which withers as you chew it. The Californian cephalopods are then dressed in licorice-like laksa leaves, mint, extra hot red pepper powder and hazelnut toasted rice powder; eat the salad stacked on puffy and frizzy sesame crackers. The dish brought me back to the first time I ate Thai-style Monterey squid, at Kin Khao in San Francisco, where Kornnawong worked until the start of the pandemic; it was as if the boss was nodding at what she had learned in the places where she had worked.

As Jo’s and his peer restaurants – Kin Khao, Eem, and the rest – demonstrate, there is no sense in judging restaurants on the basis of a Manichean idea of ​​the authentic versus the affected. Examine why one place seems more “true” than another and you will find that there is so much slippage in these descriptors, which tend to be based on stereotypes themselves. I’ve seen comments about Jo’s being a “gentrified” restaurant for “white people” who fall for this binary bogus. Do all Thai restaurants have to serve below average priced food to be “real”?

Clockwise: Crispy Catfish Taco, Pork Laab Burger, Coconut Milk Clam Chowder, Lobster Pad Thai, and Squid Salad at Jo's Modern Thai in Oakland.

Clockwise: Crispy Catfish Taco, Pork Laab Burger, Coconut Milk Clam Chowder, Lobster Pad Thai, and Squid Salad at Jo’s Modern Thai in Oakland.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

When the writer Sara Kay analyzed tens of thousands of Yelp reviews in a story from Eater NY in 2019, she found that articles that included baton-like assessments of authenticity at non-European restaurants reinforced their claims with observations of “dirt floors, plastic stools and ‘other customers who are not white’.

While Kay focused on New York City, Bay Area businesses are no exception to this dynamic. Since I don’t value my own sanity, I’ve read many reviews of places like Oakland’s La Santa Torta and the Queens Korean Grocery Store that have criticized their perceived inauthenticity, likening a small amount of rice in kimbap to the sale of his soul. This kind of criticism is shortsighted and, frankly, ignorant. Kitchens are allowed to change – to become something that might challenge people who think they know them inside and out. This is the exciting part of restaurants like Jo’s, where a burger that vibrates with citrus and fish sauce is one of the more Thai things on the menu.

Soleil Ho is the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hooleil

3725 MacArthur Boulevard, Oakland.

Hours: 4 pm-9pm Wednesday to Sunday.

Accessibility: No steps. Easy access to tables.

Noise level: Conversation can be difficult indoors during peak hours; the terrace is quieter.

Meal for two, without drinks: $ 50 to $ 70

What to order: Shrimp mousse toast ($ 15), squid salad, drunken noodles, green chili salsa, Thai michelada

Meatless options: Some dedicated vegetarian dishes, with several starters that can be changed.

Drinks : Full bar

Transport: On 14-14th St – San Antonio – High St .; 54-35th avenue – Merritt College; and 57-40th St. – MacArthur AC Transit lines. Parking on the street.

Best Practices: Reservations recommended, although it is easy to enter earlier during dinner hours.

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