About three years ago, Kris Yenbamroong took over a building adjacent to his family's restaurant, Talesai, in the heart of West Hollywood's Sunset Strip and opened Night + Market, an unassuming and pure eatery that presented some of the most flavorful Thai street food this city has seen. Since its debut, the restaurant's profile has risen dramatically, from the regular celebrity sightings at Night + Market (who are actually there to enjoy the food, not the scene) to numerous appearances (and profiles) at food events. Now, Yenbamroong talks to Eater about how Night + Market has progressed over the years, and how Night + Market Song in Silver Lake will continue to embody his unique approach to dining.
How did the idea of Night + Market come up? When I conceived Night + Market, I wanted it to be a neighborhood thing. That's still the goal, but we've become a destination, and that's cool. People always ask what's going to happen in WeHo, is it going to be just like any other chef opening another restaurant. I'm not going to start caring, it's still my baby. But they're going to have different personalities. The simplest difference is that there aren't going to be the big tables that West Hollywood has. For the Silver Lake spot, I want to have a place for everybody that lives around there, so people can take a five minute drive, or literally walk or bike there. A lot of people who come in, especially the ones who are really into food, say that this isn't really Thai food. That's because a lot of the time people are just trying to stray away from what's normal, they're trying to differentiate. I want to make Night + Market Song into more of a weekly thing, rather than once a month or a special dinner. It becomes more about hanging out. I want people to get comfortable with country food, and have it be no different than say, Father's Office. Something like, let's meet there for a beer and some food. It's sort of like a diner, but with Thai country food and alcohol.
People have said different things about the interior of Night + Market, what's your thought process there? I love going to a restaurant supply store and geeking out over the smallwares. Places like Charlie's or Action Sales. I want to have standard restaurant store tables. I think what draws me is that they're sort of like places in Chinatown or Thai Town. Like Chinese take-out places. I like that sort of vibe. Chinese restaurants do functionality really well, like backlit menuboards with photos. I think that's so cool. I'm not going to have them at Night + Market, but I'm drawn to high functionality. Here in West Hollywood, it was an evolution. It started out as a white room with two big tables, maybe a two-top. There were six photos on this wall. Then I started playing movies over to the side because it was the easiest way to create a certain ambiance. Sort of like watching TV while you eat, which is something I always do. Some nights we had two people in here, so to make people feel less lonely we started playing movies. Then we painted a wall red. At some point, orange and blue. If you look, you can see that in night markets in Thailand, there are ads for Ovaltine or Coke or whatever, and it's always these super matte, saturated colors in crazy oranges and blues. I thought this would be a good color for Night + Market. I don't want it to look like a night market, it's not about replicating, it's just something that inspired me.
What about the new place in Silver Lake? I don't have a design firm. I'm like literally doing everything, not because of budget, but because I prefer it that way. I want it to feel like a work in progress, an evolution, like something I'm building. I can pretty much guarantee that Silver Lake will look different six months in, and then a year later. This color scheme here in West Hollywood is probably going to stay. If you picture halfway between an open air market and a Chinese takeout restaurant, it's somewhere in there. For instance, beer signs, you see a lot of that in Thailand. I like beer signs. I like plastic plates from Action Sales. It's going to be very functional.
Do you think people are going to criticize the design? People confuse slickness or a really "designed" thing, with good design. I don't know if what I'm doing is a response to that. It's really a response in that everything I'm doing is my thoughts, personified. It's not that I want to be the restaurant that's intentionally not beautiful. It's just what I think looks good, and also what's right for the restaurant. If I do a restaurant five years from now, it might be a totally different things. I don't know if I want to open a sushi restaurant or a pasta place. For the character of Night + Market, it's about functionality. I want it to be comfortable. I don't like it when design is oppressive. I don't want it to be a theme restaurant. I don't want this place to have too much stuff about Thailand. It's in L.A., and it's okay to have some L.A. character. I want it to feel like my restaurant, the way it should be, the way I think food should be. Like take fake plants. I like fake plants. I don't know except that they're kind of funny and cool. People are definitely going to have their reactions, like is this supposed to be a joke? Can someone ever genuinely do something? I get a ton of Yelp reviews of people saying how shitty the restaurant looks, or that they wish I paid more attention to decor. They don't know how long it took for me to choose this kind of orange. People mistake that for laziness or lack of design.
So what's really important to you? For me, it's what's on the plate. For me it all starts with the food. I enjoy many different types of food, different restaurants, but I've never been there because the ambiance is really great. There's this fallacy about what makes a great restaurant that people have drilled into their heads. That a restaurant is equal parts food, ambiance, and service. That each one is ten points and you have to rate it that way. It's the same sort of approach that people take with movies. A movie is made up of plot, characters, dialogue — rate each one on a scale of one to ten. But what if a movie has no dialogue, like the Bourne Identity, it's not less of a movie. Everything has its own rubric. The goal is always for the food to be the most compelling thing here. I feel like the whole experience, the food, the aesthetic or sensibility, they complement each other. The food is pretty unfussy, there's no plating. It's not that plating is "sloppy," that's just the way the place is. Do you want fried rice in the shape of a mold?
What do you think about Yelp? I'm always interested in reading reviews of my friends' restaurants because I can divorce myself from it. I want to see if other people feel the same way I do. I feel like my take is so different from the majority of people out there. I feel like the best part about Yelp is that it's unfiltered. It's the ugliest and the best of people. It's the most extreme and unsensored thoughts. And back to that rubric, you can't judge restaurants the same. Osteria Mozza is one of my favorite restaurants, next to Mariscos Jalisco. Both of those things would be a three star rating to me (on the scale of Michelin). Both of those things give me the same amount of pleasure, just in different ways.
How do you feel about other people doing Thai food, specifically non-Thai chefs? I love any version of Thai food that's done really well. I don't care who's making it. Andy Ricker of Pok Pok is a good friend, and also someone I look up to. I consider him a contemporary with a lot of experience. I feel like he's my brother from another mother. That guy is fucking Thai. His skin is white, but he's fucking Thai as shit. He speaks good Thai, better than a lot of people who were born here.
And what about the authenticity aspect? I feel like I have duel emotions about that. I don't do super authentic Thai food for the sake of being super authentic, or tradition. The food is super authentic and tradition because it's the most authentic. People have been doing this food for generations. In a lot of ways, it's boiled down to the core, the best way. Like the recipe for kimchi. You might do your version, but it's an empirical formula. That said, there are certain things that I'll do that people wouldn't do in Thailand. I feel like with "ethnic" food, no one leaves room for evolution. The conversation starts and ends with authenticity. Shouldn't I get some leeway to evolve things? I'm not futurizing the food. I'm just doing something that makes the dish better, like a salt rub or a quick cure for certain cuts of meat. That wouldn't go down in Thailand. When you're curing bacon, that process didn't start in Thailand, me doing it doesn't make it any less Thai. I'm introducing this step that wasn't there. For example, a lot of stuff in Thailand is sun-dried, but if I use a food dehydrator, is that Thai? I love having a voice in terms of Thai food, there's not enough of that out there.
What's going to be different on the menu at Silver Lake? 70% of the menu will be the same. I like people to be able to get the same things week in and week out, like sausage and wings. Like that sort of place, where people come to get what they crave. I crave the queso at Bar Ama — they're not going to take that off the menu. I also like having specials, even permanent specials. The one thing I'm really excited about is gaeng gradaang. Gradaang is a word that means "hard," but you can also use it to describe people, like stubborn, unwavering. Gaeen gradaang is basically a hard, solid curry made with no coconut milk. It's northern-style country food, super gelatinous, and typically made with head cheese, trotters, and a pinch of gelatin. You make it like jello and cut it into squares. The other thing is sort of a steamed beef jerky placed on a bed of kaffir lime leaves. They're all meant to be a component of a feast.
What's it like gaining a little more notoreity for yourself, as a chef and a personality? On a personal level, it makes this three-year-old restaurant feel like one that's six months old. Over the past three years, some of the best things have happened to me, getting to know other chefs. It's so great to be well-received in your industry. This one time, I was tweeting how I wanted this shirt from Supreme, and Vinny Dotolo from Animal got it for me since his restaurant is nearby. When he brought it here, I offered to pay him back and he said, dude, just cook me dinner. It's really great to have a voice, that's the best part. It sucks if your'e working so hard and you have an opinion, but no one gives a fuck, you're just waiting to erupt. Now that we're doing well, I don't take it for granted. It's a hard industry to succeed in.
How was it getting the approval of Jonathan Gold? When Rene Redzepi was in town, Jonathan Gold called me and said he's going to bring him by. He said I didn't have to cook a whole lot of food, he's not looking to get a feast, nothing crazy. That's why I love Jonathan Gold so much, he's a great writer, he evokes a lot of emotion. And the main thing I see is that Jonathan encourages young chefs. It's so easy to be dejected when you have an empty restaurant. By writing something, he'll overlook shit that you fucked up, not that he's not critical. My restaurant was half-empty at the time, but he said, don't worry, it's not going to be empty forever. That was big for me. And of course, when Redzepi came in, I did cook a feast. That sort of thing is insane, the opportunity is what I care about the most.
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