Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as some of your favorite) restaurants.
This time, we’re looking at Jo’s Modern Thai, which opened earlier this month for indoor and outdoor dining in Oakland’s Laurel District (3725 McArthur Blvd.). Here’s everything you need to know about the exciting East Bay newcomer.
1. Jo’s represents a new generation of Thai restaurants.
Jo’s Modern Thai features a menu centered around, you guessed it, modern Thai cuisine. But the generational component goes further: The restaurant is owned by Kao Saelee, who previously helped run his family’s more traditional Thai restaurant in Berkeley, the 16-year-old Racha Cafe.
Jo’s — which is named after his fiancee — is his first restaurant.
2. You’ll want to take note of the chef.
More importantly, he’s tapped chef Intu-on Kornnawong to help create a menu of thrilling Thai dishes with modern twists.
“What I love most about Intu’s style of cooking is it is a bit different as far as tradition goes but still has all the authentic flavors of the dishes from Thailand,” Saelee says.
Kornnawong, who was formerly sous chef at popular Thai restaurants like Night + Market in Los Angeles and Michelin-starred Kin Khao in San Francisco, has been running her own pop-up, named Intu, for the last year. As soon as Saelee tried Kornnawong’s food, he knew she was the one to help on the food front.
3. The menu breakdown.
Kornnawong’s vision incorporates traditional and not-so-traditional concepts. “We want to present how Thai American food is, use seasonal Californian ingredients, and adapt Thai flavor with an American twist,” she explains.
What this means is you’ll find items like Jo’s Famous Party Wings, which features fish sauce-marinated free range chicken wings with crispy garlic served with both a tangy spicy jaew and a creamy, sweet and sour mayo dipper.
Meanwhile, kanom pung nah koong (shrimp mousse toast) is a direct import from Kornnawong’s pop-up and should not be missed. The dish layers shrimp mousse over buttery toasted milk bread, along with with pickles and cucumber plum sauce.
The lab pla muak (squid salad) is more protein than salad, featuring an abundance of Monterey squid, herbs, rice powder for crunch, chile powder for spice, and a sesame shrimp cracker to scoop it all up. It comes “Thai spicy” by default, which we definitely recommend.
For carnivores, the brisket pad kee mao — a.k.a. drunken noodles — feature slices of juicy, fatty smoked brisket from Oakland restaurant neighbor Smokin Woods BBQ, while kang tae pho moo, a citrusy, creamy coconut curry, features strips of sliced pork jowl instead of the traditional pork belly typically used in the dish.
4. The cocktails are designed to complement spicy Thai fare.
There’s a list of natural wines, but cocktails are the way to go here at Jo’s. To build out the bar program, Saelee enlisted the help of bar consultant Tayler Sampson, who previously ran the bar program at Starline Social Club. She’s created a menu of beautiful cocktails that are meant to complement Kornnawong’s spicy fare.
The Talk of the Town, for example, is a take on a pina colada featuring palm sugar, cream of coconut, cinnamon and nutmeg to spice it up a touch, and overproof rum. The drink is a crowd-pleaser. “Who doesn’t love a pina colada with spicy Thai food?” says Sampson.
The Phuket Fizz is as complex as it is Instagrammable, featuring mango-infused mezcal, vodka, a syrup made from condensed coconut milk and coconut water for sweetness, and a butterfly pea tea that imparts a beautiful lavender hue as well as an earthy flavor to the mix.
5. Dinner is walk-in only, for now.
Currently the restaurant is only open for dinner, both indoor and outdoor. They’re doing walk-ins only, and managing the waitlist via Resy. Indoor dining features plenty of tables for parties large and small, as well as a bar where you can enjoy your meal at as well. There’s also outdoor dining on their back patio, which has plenty of heat lamps to keep you warm during the Bay Area evenings.
Keep an eye out for lunch in the future, as well as reservations possibly opening up.
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco writer, cookie dough professional, and founder of nonprofit Libros Para Todos. Find him at @ommmar