Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Where to Eat: Southern Thai Food @ Emporium Thai Cuisine

The Eats: A menu of 100+ traditional and street Southern Thai dishes

The Location: Westwood

The Vibes: Warm, intimate, casual, inviting

Good for: A relaxed dining experience with friends, dates or groups of people

When-To-Go: Monday–Thursday, 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sunday, 5–10:30 p.m.

The $ Factor: Between $10–$15 per item

The Names behind the scenes: Owner John Sungkamee; Executive Chef Gina Sungkamee

The 4-1-1: Eight of the 12 Sungkamee siblings live in the States and work in the restaurant industry, at Westwood's Emporium Thai Cuisine, L.A. Thai Town’s Jitlada and North Miami’s Happy Sushi and Thai

Parking: Limited metered street parking on Westwood Blvd. and surrounding neighborhood streets

I’ll Be Back…: For the Seafood Hor Mok!

During the summer’s recent dineL.A. Restaurant Week, I was invited to an intimate media dinner at Emporium Thai Cuisine with a small group of guests and Emporium owner, John Sungkamee, pictured above. Located in Westwood just a couple of blocks south of the main UCLA campus, the restaurant's proud claim is that it's the only one in the area serving traditional and street Southern Thai food, since opening its doors in 2000.

The evening was a highly engaging, informative experience, providing insight into the colorful textures and nuances of Southern Thai food.

Leading the night’s narrative was Sungkamee himself, weaving bits and pieces of his captivating, almost-too-hard-to-believe-it’s-true, adventure-filled life story in between dinner’s three courses and his extensively thorough explanations of the culinary customs and culture of Thailand, his native country.

It all began with Starters*, which included two of the restaurant’s most requested and well-known dishes, the Seafood Hor Mok and the Morning Glory Salad.

The Seafood Hor Mok, pictured below (and which also happened to be my personal favorite of the night), is presented in a curiously shaped yet beautifully decorated plate with eight tops covering eight holes. Underneath each top is a piping hot, small mound of baked shrimp, crab and scallop, soaked in a sweet chili and coconut sauce. This is truly a dish for the serious seafood aficionado, thanks to the generous portion of seafood in each bite!

The Morning Glory Salad is a crunchy medley of watercress and shrimp, lightly battered and tossed in a light fish sauce, lime and chili dressing. It’s one of the scores of Southern Thai dishes that's featured on the menu.

Yet a menu—or even a restaurant—wasn’t initially in Sungkamee’s plan. Born and raised in Southern Thailand and the youngest of 12 children, although he emigrated to the U.S. with his parents as a teen, Sungkamee told us that he originally had intentions to return to Thailand to launch his career after graduating from an American university. Even after Thailand’s economy took a turn for the worse, forcing him to reconsider returning, with an MBA, he ventured into Corporate America. He eventually opened Emporium, thanks to how passionate he was about Southern Thai cuisine and because of how much he had enjoyed working in restaurants part-time as a college student.

He also enjoyed sharing more with us about the three main courses we sampled: the Pad Prik King Crispy Pork, the Pad Woonsen Chicken (Glass Noodles) and a Southern Curry. In Southern Thailand, he explained that individual restaurants would typically specialize and serve only one specific dish. Fortunately, we didn’t have to travel from restaurant to restaurant that night; all three entrees were in one location!

The Pad Prik King Crispy Pork has crispy pork belly and pork rind stir fried in a dry red curry with vegetables carrots, green beans and red chili. It’s delightfully filling with a “spicy” level that can be adjusted per order.

The Pad Woonsen, or Glass Noodles—named for the soft, silver noodles in the dish—are in a clear, thin broth along with scrambled eggs and a variety of vegetables including carrots, onions, mushrooms and bean sprouts.

The Southern Curry with tofu has more bitter vegetables like bell pepper juxtaposed to the sweet, fragrant yellow curry that everything is tossed in. Sungkamee explained that the curry includes a medley of spices, and some dishes can even include up to 13 spices. He credits his sister Gina Sungkamee, Emporium’s Executive Chef, for the ingenuity that’s behind each dish, often derived from their mother’s tried and true recipes.

The night culminated with dessert, which included Fresh Mango with Sweet Sticky Rice and a pleasant surprise: coconut ice cream on sticky rice, both pictured below, respectively. Sungkamee’s childhood was filled with eating more than a few of the latter dessert during the summer. He shared with us the “best” way to eat it—letting the coconut ice cream slightly melt into the sticky rice before digging in.

The entire night took place in Emporium’s warm, inviting atmosphere of earthy, muted colors and an array of eye-catching artwork, including a creative display of partitions from Cost Plus World Market along with a Buddha statue that Sungkamee acquired during his time residing in a temple as a monk.

And yet as quickly as he'll share the success or the back story behind each dish and can rattle off a long list of celebrities who have eaten at Emporium, he was candidly transparent about the challenges he's faced. There’s trying to get the delivery system down perfectly to keep customers content and not waiting too long for their orders. Figuring out how to effectively utilize social media and how to find the most value through programs like dineL.A. Restaurant Week. And of course, there’s that always-present, ever-looming question that most restaurants face: how to get even more and more bodies coming, again and again.

But with the relaxed ambiance that serves as a comfortable backdrop to the colorful, rich Thai dishes, I’m sure it won’t be long until more people flock to Emporium in the very near future.

See you there soon!

For more information: 
WebsiteFacebook, @EmporiumThai

*Note: The Crying Tiger Beef appetizer, pictured below, was also served but I did not eat it as I do not eat beef.

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