The buzz surrounding Thai barbecue bar Eem has been cacophonous. The restaurant made national best-new-restaurant lists, won Restaurant of the Year from most (if not all) local publications, and attracted hour-plus waits throughout its first year. There’s something about the energy of the team, the goofy creativity of the drinks, and the layers of complexity in the curries and smoked meats that makes Eem, the colorful corner restaurant on North Williams, a destination.
From its first pop-up on New Year’s Eve of 2018 to today, Eem has been a collaborative project, incorporating dramatically different backstories and experiences of chefs and food-industry standbys. An established restaurateur, a pop-up star, a barbecue cart pitmaster, and a poke chef came together to make this special place, but there’s more to know about them than their previous work. Below, we take a look at the players who make Eem Eem, from the people walking customers to their seats to the ones creating the drinks.
Earl Ninsom, Co-owner
The man behind the Thai flavors at Eem, Earl had already established himself as a leader in regional Thai food in the Portland area. His other restaurants, like Southern Thai spot Hat Yai and tasting-menu spot Langbaan, have accrued praise from publications and diners across the country. Ninsom helped develop the foundational curries, sides, and Thai dishes on the Eem menu, while also running his other restaurants.
Hometown: Bangkok, Thailand
Former stomping grounds: Paadee, Langbaan, Hat Yai
Favorite drink at Eem: Iced tea
Favorite dish at Eem: I like everything on the menu; it depends on the time of the day, weather, and such — field greens salad, any of the curries.
Favorite ingredient to play with: Aside from barbecue, greens or root vegetables.
Mentor or Idol: Everyone around me. I learn from observing how other people do things. We have a strong and diverse crew with different strengths — seeing them doing or coming up with answers to problems on their own is my favorite thing about working with everyone.
Unsung hero of the restaurant: Colin Yoshimoto and Eric Nelson. They have been the backbone of Eem, and we are lucky to have them.
What you’re eating on your off days: Sushi at Nimblefish, Anything at Coquine at any time, lunch at Luce, breakfast at La Luna Cafe or Canard.
Favorite song on the Eem playlist: Any Reggae that they put on in the dining room — that vacation-vibes music.
Matt Vicedomini, Co-owner
Matt Vicedomini developed his audience with his Texas barbecue cart, Matt’s BBQ. Located at Prost Marketplace, Matt’s became a national favorite for its brisket and sausages, but after collaborating with Ninsom at a Feast event, he decided to look outside Texas for inspiration. Vicedomini develops the various smoked meats that land in curries or stuffed in lettuce wraps, while also running Matt’s and its new sibling, Matt’s BBQ Tacos.
Hometown: East Islip, New York
Former stomping grounds: Matt’s BBQ, the Goodfoot
Favorite drink at Eem: Anything out of the slushy machine
Favorite dish at Eem: Barbecue fried rice
Favorite ingredient to play with: Meat
Mentor or Idol: My mother
Unsung hero of the restaurant: I always feel bad when Colin Yoshimoto doesn’t get mentioned in our articles. He was there with us well before the restaurant opened, the unofficial fourth member of the band. As with any restaurant, only a select few get credit for the collective work of many people. So also a shout out to everyone else who’s worked a shift there since we’ve opened.
What you’re eating on your off days: I’ve been doing a deep dive into the Arby’s menu. I also eat at Little Conejo a lot.
Favorite song on the Eem playlist: I don’t like to cook with music on. I worked in a few restaurants that worked in silence and grew to find it more pleasant. When driving around between the two carts and Eem, I always listen to the jazz station.
Eric Nelson, Co-owner
Eric Nelson is the owner most likely to be seen at the actual restaurant. Known for his cocktail bar pop-up Shipwreck, Nelson is often spotted seating diners and offering the occasional jock-nod to regulars, while also creating off-the-wall cocktails to serve alongside the restaurant’s food menu. His drinks range from boozy slushies served in pufferfish bowls to a number of nonalcoholic cocktails, which are given the same thought and artistry as the stiffer drinks.
Former stomping grounds: Expatriate, Laurelhurst Market, Gino’s, Suttle Lodge
Favorite drink at Eem: Change of address. Salty coke is the truth, y’all.
Favorite dish at Eem: Staff meal.
Favorite ingredient to play with: Literally any alcohol that doesn’t have a brand ambassador.
Mentor or Idol: My partner. She not only teaches me daily how to accept the changes the world throws at us, but she is consistently on the road to self-improvement.
Unsung hero of the restaurant: My bar manager Sam Kontny. People still think I pull the strings behind the bar at Eem, but it’s the leadership of that homie that keeps us relevant. We’re always on the same page, and he always shows up ready to fucking smash. I’ve never worked with a better bartender.
What you’re eating on your off days: Humble pie
Favorite song on the Eem playlist: Dan Reeder’s “Work Song.” It’s just two full minutes of him repeating “I got all the fuckin’ work I need.” It’s impactful.
Colin Yoshimoto, Chef de Cuisine
With both Ninsom and Vicedomini running other businesses outside Eem, chef de cuisine Colin Yoshimoto handles day-to-day operations in the kitchen. He’s also the mind behind a few of the restaurant’s favorite dishes outside the world of curries and smoked meat, like the restaurant’s hot cauliflower and the sweet-and-sour fried chicken.
Hometown: Mililani, Hawai‘i
Former stomping grounds: Poke Mon, Nodoguro, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Hiroshi, Pizza Hut
Favorite drink at Eem: Ice-cold Polar soda water
Favorite dish at Eem: Green curry
Favorite ingredient to play with: Chicken
Mentor/Idol: Asian Joe, forever and always. [Editor’s note: Joe Nguyen is a Portland service industry vet. He self-identifies by the nickname Asian Joe.]
Unsung hero of the restaurant: Ang. (Angela D’Occhio, assistant general manager)
What you’re eating on your off days: Cafe Rowan is pretty tight.
Favorite song on the Eem playlist: “Easy Lover” by Phillip Bailey and Phil Collins
Angela D’Occhio, Assistant General Manager
D’Occhio runs the front of the house with Jonathan Staehr — she and Staehr are often the first people customers see when they visit the restaurant. Still in her 20s and deeply creative, D’Occhio brings lively, youthful energy to the team at Eem, and helps give the space the party vibes it’s known for. “Nobody has the finger on the pulse like her,” Nelson says.
Former stomping grounds: White Dog Café in University City, Philadelphia; Harper’s Garden in Center City, Philadelphia; Bakersfield in downtown Pittsburgh
Favorite drink at Eem: A nice cold can of coconut water.
Favorite dish at Eem: Veg fried rice, no question.
Favorite ingredient to play with: Any root vegetable.
Mentor/Idol: Padma Lakshmi, Angela Davis and without a doubt, my little sister Vienna.
Unsung hero of the restaurant: The entire back-of-house team. Every single one of them has come to work with a glowingly positive attitude and an effortless amount of patience and adaptability throughout the scariest months the restaurant industry has ever seen. It truly is heroic how they have committed themselves to the team they have built. I owe them all hugs and doughnuts for the laughter they have brought me over the hardest parts of this job.
What you’re eating on your off days: A homemade vegan cheesesteak with a super soft roll and caramelized onions, and that’s not even a Philly joke. It’s just the truth.
Favorite song on the Eem playlist: “The Lung” (or any song, really) by Hiatus Kaiyote, or the occasional Madlib track.
Jonathan Staehr, Assistant General Manager
Staehr, with his amiable charm and noticeable sense of humor, runs the front of house with D’Occhio. If she helps keep things lively and high energy, he helps keep both the diners and the team cool and collected. “Jonathan is the one on the front lines handling those two=hour waits,” Nelson says. “That humor is one he exhibits throughout the night, simultaneously calming down the anxiety of waiting guests and teaching all of us to be grounded during our busiest hours.”
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Former stomping grounds: Jacqueline, Broder, the Country Cat
Favorite drink at Eem: Mistakes were made. It has booze and wine and definitely won’t give you a hangover if you have 2 or less.
Favorite dish at Eem: By volume, sweet and sour fried chicken.
Favorite ingredient to play with: Is pivoting an ingredient? It’s been super fun and easy and stress-free and hasn’t taken any kind of toll on my psyche at all.
Mentor or Idol: My wife is pretty rad. She teaches me how to human better with her existence.
Unsung hero of the restaurant: The slushy machine. It works harder than all of us.
What you’re eating on your off days: Straight garbage.
Favorite song on the Eem playlist: I‘ve been listening to lots of Kyle Craft.