Since it opened, it’s been a sensation: At the space once home to Ray, lines curl around the building on Williams, throngs of tourists and Portlanders cheerfully waiting for smoky hunks of pork and beef, fragrant curries and sauces, and captivating cocktails served in clamshell or blowfish glassware. This is Eem, the triple threat from Thai restaurateur Earl Ninsom, pitmaster Matt Vicedomini, and master bartender Eric Nelson. It’s a certifiable hit, and none of the three will take the credit for it. Vicedomini attributes Ninsom as the brains behind the operation, Ninsom shrugs it off with a “no big deal, anyone could do it” sort of humility, and Nelson is happily behind the bar, with a “don’t look at me” smile. Whatever makes it work, the restaurant and bar is a party, hopping every night with “vacationers,” as they call them, wrapping chunks of pork in lettuce and taking photos with their drinks.
Portlanders love to drink, but some prefer to do so without booze; the bar at Eem is part of the fun, adding a lot of playfulness to the presentation to make drinkers and non-drinkers feel a part of the celebration. Still, for all the goofiness behind the bar, Eem’s dishes are composed and thought-out, combining both Ninsom and Vicedomini’s skill-sets in a way that doesn’t clash. If you talk to the three of them, an ideal meal at Eem often involves a lot of smoked meat, a few drinks, and back-pocket surprises. Below, explore the dishes and drinks that make Eem a hit, with the details from the minds behind them.
Although he spends most of his time working with alcohol, Nelson has been sober for five years. That’s why the non-alcoholic drinks — or as he calls it, clear headed drinks — were particularly important to him. “We wanted to make something that brought in the flavor of bitter that us ex-drinkers miss,” Nelson says. He tried to recreate an Americano — a combination of sweet vermouth and campari with club soda — by combining mango puree, lemon juice, plum bitters, and a bitter soda imported from Italy. The result is a dual-colored drink that looks far sweeter than it tastes.
Nelson sees Natural Wine as Eem’s “signature cocktail,” and it’s not really his. When the team began hiring for Eem, Nelson pulled in Anna Moss from La Moule and asked her to design a drink. “It does everything we wanted to do,” Nelson says. “It utilizes all these ingredients that aren’t being used.” The drink combines Singani, a Bolivian brandy, with Avèze, a gentian liqueur, to balance out the sweetness of lemongrass-coconut cream and carrot juice. A lime-leaf tincture add some more acid and aromatics, and boom — Natural Wine.
If there’s a cocktail out there that defines Nelson’s style, it’s the Joan Wilder, named for the character in the classic ‘80s flick Romancing the Stone. It was the first cocktail Nelson used for his pop-up, Shipwreck, and he’s put it on every menu since: something like a ginger-Midori sour with overproof gin, shaken with some egg white for mouthfeel. In certain ways, Nelson’s cocktail is a nod to famous Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who similarly pairs a sweet spirit with an overproof spirit with his amaretto sour. “It kind of encompasses everything I believe in,” Nelson says. “I take fun seriously... It’s a mini-vacation every time. The world is so fucked up outside these windows, we might as well put you in Puerto Vallarta if we can.”
One of the original dishes at the very first Eem pop-up, the restaurant’s pork steak is Vicedomini’s baby. Pork steak is fairly common in Texas, so the barbecue geek brought the Eem owners down to Snow’s BBQ in Lexington to taste the real deal. The chef rubs the steak in salt and pepper, smokes it in the 225 to 275 degree range for four to six hours. When it’s served, it’s seared and brushed with a fish sauce and palm sugar glaze. The dish arrives with a few dipping sauces: The restaurant’s jeaw, a fish sauce marinade, and nam prik noom, a coarse mixture of green chiles, fish sauce, and aromatics. “It’s made with Anaheim pepper,” he says. “I thought, this is perfect! You could put this on a taco.”
Chopped BBQ Fried Rice
“This is hangover eating,” Ninsom says, referring to the restaurant’s fried rice dish. For him, it’s obvious, effortless, but Vicedomini makes it clear — this dish is as much about technique as any of his barbecued meats. The team dries out the rice overnight so it stays firm, and makes sure it’s charred correctly to develop the flavor of the wok before it hits the plate. Vicedomini offers up the pickings from the pork steak or brisket, depending on what he has lying around, for the protein, which adds smokiness to the overall dish.
White Curry with Brisket Burnt Ends
The very beginning of Eem, often described as its origin story, starts with a collaborative dish made by Ninsom and Vicedomini for Portland’s epic food festival Feast: A jungle curry — a Northern Thai curry with no coconut milk — made with sliced brisket. That dish remains on the menu at Eem, but the leveled up version of that dish is its sibling, a white curry with chunks of brisket burnt ends. He first tried pairing the burnt ends with the jungle curry, but it wasn’t a winner just yet. “We wanted to do something spicy, but it didn’t quite work,” Ninsom says. Then, he tried a Central Thai curry with lots of dried chiles and herbs, and he described the difference between the fatty brisket and the herbal curry as “too far apart” on the flavor spectrum. Finally, he tried the white curry — a milder version often served with fish in Thailand — and found a winner. The burnt ends hop in a bath of Golden Mountain, white vinegar, and sugar, to play off the traditional barbecue sauce. “Same idea, but you’re making a barbecue sauce out of Thai ingredients,” Vicedomini says.
Tamarind Curry with Halibut
This sour curry is one of two on the menu made without coconut milk, also making it one of the lighter dishes on the menu. Originally made with black cod, the tamarind curry now uses a halibut, placed over snap peas and cabbage. “It would really go well with any fish,” Ninsom says. “We just want to use what’s seasonal.” Ninsom has been heading in the direction of more seafood dishes and lighter fare at all his restaurants (including his recently opened Hat Yai location in Southeast Portland), which makes this dish one of his favorites. “It feels bright and summery,” he says. Fitting, for one of Portland’s most summery destinations.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Singani is from Bolivia, not Chile.