If there’s one thing Earl Ninsom wants you to know about the new Hat Yai, it’s that it’s not the same thing as the original Hat Yai. “We have to keep moving forward,” the chef said a few hours before taking off for London to kick off a culinary research trip for the new restaurant. “We want to do something new, fun, and with passion.”
With friendly counter service and a casual, bustling dining room, the original Hat Yai has been drawing crowds to Northeast Killingsworth Street for its cravable fried chicken, curry, and roti since Ninsom opened the restaurant in 2016 with partner and co-owner Alan Akwai. With twice the space to work with, there’s so much more to Hat Yai 2.0, which he hopes to open to the public in mid-to-late November. Ninsom sees opening a second location as a balancing act. He wouldn’t feel good repeating the original idea, but, he says, “I can’t betray the people who love it.”
To that end, Ninsom thinks of the new restaurant as split into two sides, citing San Francisco’s Tartine Manufactory as an inspiration for the model. On the right side will be the more familiar counter. Ninsom says the menu will be shorter than at original Hat Yai but promises he’ll serve “the hits.”
During the evening, the left side of the restaurant will offer table service and a menu based on “ingredients that are good for you, cooked in a Southern Thai style,” including “dishes we’ve never seen in this country before.” Ninsom says he was inspired by reading The Plant Paradox, and now wants to focus more on vegetables. Not that the dinner menu will be vegetarian. Among the dishes he’s excited to try in the new space are a stuffed mackerel (the fish will be deboned, stuffed with fish cake, and deep-fried whole) and a seafood stew inspired popularized by a restaurant in the city of Hat Yai (his version will be made with roasted coconut water). Whereas most of his years cooking in America have been spent working with gas stoves and woks, he’s planning on bringing charcoal grills — not dissimilar to the kind his grandmother cooked with in southern Thailand — into the restaurant kitchen for his full-service menu.
Mostly, he just wants visitors to the new Hat Yai to have fun. “Food is important, but having a good time is more important.”
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.