This Wine Bar Is a Thai Restaurant in Disguise

Wine is an unlikely powerful element of Kris Yenbamroong’s restaurant Night + Market Song, the place that brings authentic, rarified Thai street food traditions to LA. Wine has no place in those traditions, and in Thai food, generally, it has hardly...

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Oct 23 2014, 4:53pm

Everything about Night + Market Song—Kris Yenbamroong's aggressively spiced Thai restaurant specializing in up-country food—is broad-gesture, bordering on hyperbolic. The low-slung Silver Lake storefront space, opened earlier this year, announces itself on Sunset Boulevard with a bright-pink paint job. Inside, it can get pretty deafening—there isn't much in the way of art on the walls (painted a deep tangerine color), except for a Cindy Crawford poster and a row of 8.5 x 11 frames holding photos of Thai royalty that Kris brought back from Thailand. And the food is so funky, so salty, and so spicy, that drinking becomes an integral part of the eating experience here.

Song means "two" in Thai—this is the second iteration of the popular Night + Market restaurant that opened a few years ago on the Sunset Strip, so the name fits—but it might as well mean "eleven." Like Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap, Kris Yenbamroong likes to add a little something extra to whatever he's doing, whether it's decibels or wild color frequencies, or even Scoville units. It's brought the young chef due attention: two semifinalist nods from the James Beard people, rave reviews from LA Times critic/Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold, visits from heroes René Redzepi and David Chang, etc.

This is my favorite place to eat in Los Angeles right now. And if there is something clever about the food Kris is serving here, I am missing the point, assuredly. I doubt that this sets me apart from most of the regular clientele. We come here to eat delicious, different, and boldly spicy food, usually to the point of discomfort. And we wash that food down with big, ice-cold bottles of crisp Singha and Beerlao.

Night + Market SONG

Chef Kris Yenbamroong at Night + Market. All photos by Laure Joliet.

So it's in keeping that I notice a Beerlao in Kris's hand when we sit down at Song to chat for this article, between his prep work obligations on a recent Monday evening. We're talking about the regional Thai street food stuff, much from the North and North East, that gives food people fits of braggadocio. Have you tried the pig's blood soup? Did you know the dipping sauce is made of water bugs? Can you imagine the burpy make-out session I had after eating the fermented sour Isaan sausage? But the chef only gets animated when the discussion turns to wine. There is a $6 glass of box wine on the menu that I recently ordered, but have to admit ignorance to whatever else he's been pouring.

All of the sudden, Kris—who is visibly stoked—is heading to the fridge and returns with his arms full of bottles. He proudly displays a half dozen wines on the table in front of me: sauvignon, gamay, and chardonnay, all natural wines from the Loire Valley, where he tells me he has worked harvest.

"I always fantasized that somebody would come in here and order a bottle of wine, and not eat anything," Kris says. "Actually I wanted to open Night + Market as a wine bar as much as a restaurant."

Night + Market SONG

Why is Chef getting all geeked out over wine?

Wine is an unlikely element of Kris's project. The aim: to bring authentic, rarified Thai street food traditions to Los Angeles. Wine has no place in those traditions, and in Thai food generally it has hardly any place at all. In Thai restaurants in the States, it's hard to find much variety in a wine list outside of a selection off-dry Rieslings. Kris's list is comprised mostly of natural wines, loosely defined as wines that are farmed organically or bio-dynamically, made with native yeast, without the help of commercial technologies, and with minimal or no oak.

Kris boasts of a Clos Roche Blanche gamay that only he and Chez Panisse are carrying right now. He gleefully recalls driving a stick-shift rental car, flat drunk, from the Loire back to Paris one night. And there's a happy memory of driving to the East Coast to visit his now-fiancée, where he (illegally) purchased several cases of the wine he helped make in the Loire, drove them back across the country, and sold them at Night + Market. There are a couple of the wines he's carrying right now that he doesn't think anybody else in the States has. The wine list, to Kris, sets Night + Market apart from other LA restaurants, more than anything else.

beef-basil

Larb Tod

"I'm just saying that there should be more places in LA that bring in these wines and that it's a little ridiculous that the only place that does is a little Thai restaurant where no one really even cares or expects it."

I ask him how this fascination started.

"You know Lou?" he asks.

It makes total sense that Kris is bringing up Lou — but then it doesn't make much sense at all, because Kris Yenbamroong and Lou Amdur are an unlikely pairing.

Kris, the young chef known for cooking spicy street food, used to work for the outré New York photographer Richard Kern. The chef, sleeved in tattoos, and—as shown in an evocative slow-motion section of the video accompanying this piece—frequents the strip clubs of East Hollywood. Lou, the French smock-clad wine purveyor who keeps a tidy shop of obscure natural wines in a Los Feliz strip mall, is given to delightfully memorable elocutions such as this: "We live in a world that's awash in the traces of commodity." And this: "We should be drinking oceans of pétillant naturel in Los Angeles." And this: "Carnitas Michoacán and a dry Lambrusco? Fuck, that's delicious."

The pair met in 2008, at Lou's wine bar in Hollywood. Kris was drinking a glass of wine —"probably a grassy sauvignon from the Loire"—that Lou had just poured for him, which was blowing his mind, and turning him onto wine for good. This was after Kris had returned home from New York to run the family business, Talesai, a Western-facing Thai restaurant on the Sunset Strip that the Yenbamroong family has owned for more than three decades.

"I was grabbing for things," Kris says, "wine, traveling."

Within months, under Lou's tutelage, Kris had been introduced to wine importers like Louis/Dressner and Kermit Lynch. He had learned enough about wine to want to visit France. He hoped to expand Talesai's wine list but he mostly hoped to go to France and drink wine and think about what to do with his life. He ended up falling in love with the wines of the Loire Valley, where he'd return the following year to work harvest, and realized that he wasn't cut out to be a businessman. Upon returning to LA, Kris ceded the business back to his father. "I was running the family business … into the ground," he quips, and, somewhat accidentally, started cooking Northern Thai comfort food in a spare gallery space next door. Night + Market was born.

Night + Market SONG

"When we opened Night + Market, wine was never secondary," Kris says.

Along with platters of spicy larb gai, sticky rice, sweet chicken wings, fatty pork collar (a.k.a. "toro"), and fried papaya salad with chile-spiked dipping sauce, Kris starting serving Mekong whiskey, Beerlao, and, mostly, a selection of natural wines — many funky, the majority from the Loire. When he opened Song earlier this year, he brought the focus of wine with him. These days at song, Kris is pouring about 20 natural wines — about three-quarters coming from the Loire, and about a third of that total being pétillant naturel. And with the lack of Mekong whiskey old-fashioneds, at least at this point, at Song, I just might start sampling them along with my favorite food in LA.

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"Kris has an unapologetic relationship with natural wine," Lou says. "He's opening doors and opening up minds about what to expect from a neighborhood Thai restaurant."

When Lou hosted a tasting of Champagne Jacquesson a few weeks ago, he asked Kris to prepare the food — a version of the off-the-menu fried chicken sandwich he has been serving at Song. The rare, expensive wine helped complete an eating experience that is closer to Kris's ultimate vision for his restaurant than one might think.

I ask Kris if he thinks the food he cooks, most of it much more boldly spiced than the chicken sandwich (which does come with sliced raw pepper), overwhelms the finer characteristics of the wines he carries. He shrugs.

"Pairing's not my thing," he says. "I'm not really here to convince anyone of anything beyond the fact that the wine is delicious and so is the food."

Lou makes the argument for pairing. The idea being, basically, that a lot of these wines end up falling closely in line with what we like about drinking Beerlao with these foods: often dry, with a little bitterness, and often some effervescence. A pétillant naturel Lambrusco, for example, exhibits these same characteristics of beer, but with added acidity — "a gateway drug," as Lou says.

"It works a lot more often than you'd think it would," according to maestro Jonathan Gold. "Funk-on-funk may actually be a logical way to go, and the typically high acids can stand up to the multi-chili assault. And the bubbles of the pét-nats are naturally refreshing, if nothing else acting as a kind of grown-up Sprite with his food."

Of course, it takes quite a bit of grown-up Sprite to get through a meal as spicy as Night + Market. That's OK with Kris.

"Most of the wines that I enjoy drinking are gulpers, not sippers," Kris says. "Thierry Puzelat is famous for saying that his favorite wine is any wine he can open and finish off in less than ten minutes. That's pretty much where my head is in terms of wine."

Night + Market SONG

As Kris and I are talking, the restaurant has been filling up and the din is rising inside, with the sound of a packed house at a small venue anticipating the start of a show. I want to press on this idea, that maybe this is Kris having a conversation that's going over most people's heads — people who aren't him, or Lou, or Jonathan Gold. I ask him, over the noise, if he thinks many of his customers "get" the wine thing. He looks out to the dining room and points to a graying, bearded man seated at a four-top a few tables away.

"Like James Murphy," he half-shouts, referring to the lead singer of LCD Soundsystem. "Did you see him come in?"

I hadn't.

"He comes in here all the time, and he loves the wine."

Murphy confirms, calling Night + Market "a haven for European, mostly natural wine on the West Coast."

"It's always been a wine place to me, which happens to have the additional bonus of searing, amazing Northern Thai food. I like that I can get my chili endorphin rush along with some cloudy macerated white wine."

As Kris heads back to the kitchen, I sidle up to the bar and grab the last available seat and, without hesitation, order a fried chicken sandwich, which is probably the most sensible thing to order as a solo meal here. Usually I'd order a big beer but instead I ask Sarah, the front of house at Song and also Kris's fiancée, about which wine to drink. She suggests a glass of a pétillant naturel, the name of which she says translates to an idiom for "morning wood." Like an idiot, I ask her if I should also order something else to eat, because this is my first solo meal at Song and I don't want to miss out on all the different things I usually get to eat here. She suggests I order the khao pad American a.k.a. "strip club fried rice"—rice fried with ketchup, peas, and carrots, and served with chicken wings and florets of hot dogs. So I do, although I know I won't ever be able to finish it (the chicken sandwich is an entire thigh). And I can't.

Recipe: Night + Market's Strip Club Fried Rice

But I do order another glass of wine with my sandwich, a stinky, horsey (I'm trying with the wine words here) red varietal called pineau d'aunis that I just loved. Extremely quaffable.