At nearly every barbecue joint, there’s one person who gets all the credit. It’s usually the pitmaster, maybe a couple of pitmasters, but any owner knows that it takes a team to run a great restaurant. Eem, in Portland, Oregon (the hot barbecue city I praised this week), takes the opposite approach both with its talent and the menu. This Thai barbecue restaurant and cocktail bar is a collaboration between Thai chef Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom, master bartender Eric Nelson, and pitmaster Matt Vicedomini. (Their initials form the name “Eem,” which also translates to “satiated” in Thai.) None of them desire top billing, and their menu is a reflection of that. The elements in each dish that aren’t barbecue are just as important as the smoked meat they complement. As a style of barbecue, Eem is impossible to categorize. It’s simply the most exciting barbecue restaurant to open this year.
A pork steak the color of molasses is a good lens through which to view Eem’s barbecue philosophy. The surface of the thinly sliced steak sparkled when it hit the light. A first layer of bark had been formed in the cabinet smoker in the back. That was then reinforced with a slather of fish caramel before hitting a hot grill for service. “Salty, sweet, and sour is a barbecue sauce flavor,” Vicedomini said, explaining his intent with the fish caramel. Each tender slice brought a rush of fat and flavor. It was great alone or wrapped in lettuce leaves with herbs and topped with more of the salty, sweet, and spicy dipping sauces. After a visit to Snow’s BBQ, which is famous for its excellent pork steak, Vicedomini said, “I always wanted to master pork steak.” Nobody would confuse his version for Snow’s, but the dish at Eem indicates a master, or a team of them, at work.
Bringing Asian flavors together with smoked meats has become something of a trend during the past couple of years. Austin is home to the Japanese-Texan barbecue restaurant Kemuri Tatsu-ya and Loro, which describes itself as an Asian smokehouse. The partners at Eem have visited them both. “We took elements of Kemuri Tatsu-ya and Loro and filtered it through a Thai barbecue thing that works for the Portland demographic,” Vicedomini said. They didn’t end up with a copy of either. Barbecue doesn’t permeate the menu at Kemuri like it does at Eem, while the barbecue is the unquestioned star at Loro.
Although they’re in different states, it’s hard not to compare Eem and Loro, a collaboration between chef Tyson Cole and Aaron Franklin, the latter of whom Vicedomini considers his primary barbecue influence. Cole first publicly revealed his plans for Loro during Feast Portland in 2017. At the same festival, before Eem was a concept, Vicedomini and Ninsom collaborated for the first time on a smoked brisket and curry dish. It was revelatory, and that same energy pulses through their dishes at Eem. Midway through my meal there, I realized that Eem’s approach is what I had expected of Loro when it was first announced. Maybe Loro’s deference to the smoked meats is what the Austin audience craved. The success of Cole and Franklin’s restaurant, which is planning an expansion into Dallas and Houston, bears that out, but Austin hasn’t yet tasted smoked brisket curry.
I crave barbecue because of its strong flavors. There’s a subtlety to the way Texas brisket is prepared, with simple seasoning and smoke the primary ingredients. But brisket is the beefiest of beefy cuts, the flavor of black pepper is powerful, and most pitmasters I know are salt and smoke fiends. I mentioned this to Vicedomini, and he agreed. “Thai flavors are bold as well. They can be really spicy, or really sour, or really bitter,” he said. Because of that, the Thai curries at Eem are the perfect counterpunch to those barbecue flavors.
Rassamee “Nim” Ruaysuntia is the curry master in the kitchen. Her broth is the color of sweet tea in the spicy jungle curry. The aromas of kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and cilantro wafted up from the dish like an herbaceous breeze when the bowl passed me on its way to the table. A thick slice of smoked brisket floated just beneath the surface. The tender, smoky beef soaked up the savory and acidic broth. Eyes widened around the table with each bite that seemed to highlight a new flavor in the curry. Brisket burnt ends bobbed above the creamier white curry with roasted cauliflower, which was on the cooler end of the spice spectrum. Shredded smoked lamb paired nicely with the nutty massaman curry, but the best bite of the night always seemed to be the next.
The flavors are no less bold at lunch. There are fewer options, but it’s a far different scene from the crushing crowds that descend in the evening and wait in line outside. Every seat is full almost immediately after the doors open for dinner service. Earlier the same day, I found an empty restaurant midweek just after 11 a.m. and took a spot at the bar. Beef dumpling soup doesn’t sound much like a barbecue dish, but the beef is a thick slice of smoked brisket. Dumplings filled with more beef bobbed in a salty broth made with beef bones. Green onion, cilantro, and fragrant fried garlic rained down over the dish. I scooped up the garnish and a bite of the brisket. I found myself wishing that every brisket sandwich I ever eat from now on included fried garlic.
Pork belly burnt ends are everywhere these days, and there’s a version on the Eem lunch menu. Instead of a second dose of smoke and a sweet sauce or rub coating the nuggets of tender pork at Eem, they’re seared in a hot wok and topped with an oyster sauce studded with Thai chilies and ginger. The yolk from a fried egg, the edges lacy from the deep vat of hot fat they were fried in, helped tame the heat. It was a dish that would have featured grilled pork at any other Thai restaurant, but the secret weapon, as in so many other dishes at Eem, was the smoke. It’s the same secret that brings a unique depth to the brisket fried rice that you don’t normally taste elsewhere. As Vicedomini explains, their goal is to “do Thai food, but instead of grilling, we’re going to smoke it.”
In a couple of dishes at Eem, the barbecue does take the lead role. A rack of tender, sweet-glazed baby back ribs isn’t too far from what you’d find at a standard barbecue joint. In a dark dining room, the garnish on top looks like it might just be pickled cucumber and shallots, then you take a bite and get the herbs and the acidic pop of . . . is that a segment of orange? Sweet lime? Nope, it’s grapefruit, which acts like a palate cleanser, readying you to steal the last rib off the platter. A appetizer link of boudin is technically a rice and meat sausage, but this one uses brisket with jasmine rice and Thai herbs stuffed inside. The link is split on the plate and topped with chopped egg, tomatoes, and a fish sauce dressing. It wasn’t exactly easy to eat (or share), but I loved how the kitchen toyed with my expectations of boudin.
Persuaded to get that plane ticket to Portland yet? The crazy thing to consider is that the barbecue at Eem will only get better. Right now Vicedomini is in charge of the barbecue at Eem, Matt’s BBQ, and Matt’s BBQ Tacos. He admits that the barbecue is best at the Matt’s BBQ truck because it has the best offset smoker of the trio. A cabinet smoker with little airflow sits in the kitchen at Eem. That will all change when a new warehouse is complete that will house enough new offset smokers to cook all the barbecue for the three restaurants and get it all done to the same standard. Eem served the best meal—not just the best barbecue meal—I ate this year. After that barbecue warehouse gets opened, I’ll be happy to return to see if they can do it again next year.