You know the chef is doing something right when you and your dining companion are arguing over which sauce at dinner is the most mind-blowing, and you haven’t even gotten past the appetizers.
That was the predicament we found ourselves in recently when we were invited to try the new Farmhouse Kitchen in Jack London Square.
For my husband, it was the cilantro-lime vinaigrette which flavored a bite of grilled Snake River beef wrapped around a slice of cucumber with fresh herbs ($14.50). For me, it was the lime, ginger, onion, roasted coconut and peanuts in a tamarind sauce sitting below a perfectly-fried tiger prawn that I wrapped in a raw leafy green ($13).
Those were two of six appetizers we tasted on a bamboo serving tower that made us the envy of all our neighbors on the patio. (While right now the bamboo tower is especially for media visits to showcase smaller bites of the food, the chef said it has caused such a stir among other customers who see it, that they might start to offer an appetizer sampler to everyone soon).
It was a warm evening when we visited, and the women at the hostess stand flashed us big smiles and fanned us as they checked us in. The patio features bamboo tables and chairs, and the rattan-style umbrellas and the staff’s vibrant print shirts transport you to a Thai beach, even though you haven’t left Oakland. That’s intentional, of course, as the hope is that along with tasting the food, you’ll be whisked away to Thailand, without even needing to take your passport or board a plane.
Not since Daughter Thai opened in Montclair Village in 2016 — also by the same restaurant group — has Thai food been given such a high profile in the East Bay, and we think, deservedly so.
Chef Kasem “Pop” Saengsawang is at the helm of these restaurants, and he cites a few things as influences.
“I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for the past 15 years, and I see the trends,” Saengsawang said. After a period where Asian fusion was the rage, “now all cuisines are going back to their original, authentic feeling,” he said. “We’re using the same techniques as when I grew up; when we do a curry paste, we do everything from scratch.”
Furthermore, Saengsawang knows that people don’t only eat with their eyes anymore, but with their phones and with Instagram. Therefore he thinks more about composition and plating to make each dish as visually appealing as possible.
It’s why the Fresh Curry ($13), a cocktail made with St. George green chili vodka, ginger puree, lemongrass, lime and basil came with a glass nestled inside a coconut milk can. Aside from being ‘gram-worthy, it also reminds the chef of home.
“Any can or container was my cup growing up, while my little sister used a can to collect rocks or coins or whatever,” he said. “Those remind me of how I drink back in my country. Plus it’s fun to see people excited by it.”
It’s also one of the reasons he serves jasmine rice with a blue hue, which “comes from the butterfly pea flower, and you see it a lot in Thai cooking now, especially in desserts,” he said. “It’s food for the kings and queens, and requires a lot of technique to make. You soak the flower overnight to get the blue liquid, and then steam the rice in it, which gives the rice the sexiness of the blue. I want to show other people that this is a different way of Thai cooking.”
Saengsawang grew up cooking with his grandmother, in Northern Thailand, where he lived in the countryside. “I was always the one who helped her prep and so I learned a lot from her, like how to cook with different temperatures and different techniques like how to steam and fry,” he said.
He moved to San Francisco in 2005 to attend college, and went to work in restaurants to support himself. He went from dishwasher to prep cook to line cook, and when a customer came to the kitchen to express his thanks for the wonderful meal, that was the moment that made him want to leave school to cook full-time.
He then worked as a server and manager before developing the Asian-fusion menu at Blackwood in the Marina and then opening Kitchen Story in the Castro with his wife and business partner Kumuth Chatterjee in 2012. The first Farmhouse Kitchen came next in the Mission district in 2015, and then Daughter Thai followed in Montclair Village in 2016. Last year, they opened a Farmhouse Kitchen in Portland, and now comes the one at Jack London Square. (Additional partners for all but the Portland location are Atikom “Arty” Larpnampha and Jantima Ongpichatmatha).
Saengsawang is on a mission to share the food from his childhood, which, admittedly, can sound a bit trite. But when he asked what my favorite dish was, and then had a story to match, I took him for his word. The Panang Neua ($27.50) — a slow-roasted bone-in short rib in a Panang curry with grilled broccolini served with blue rice — was definitely a stand-out in my mind. It turns out I’m not alone.
“Every time when we celebrated the Thai new year, my family would gather together with 60 to 70 people at my house. My grandmother would get a whole cow, and they’d dig a huge hole in the dirt and build a fire in it,” he said.
The cow would go into the hole over the fire, along with lots of banana leaves, spices and chiles, and they’d leave it there, slow-roasting, for two whole days.
“My room was really close to that hole, and when they opened it, that was the part I loved the most,” he said.
Daughter Thai has gained a reputation for not dumbing down the spice level to suit farang tastes, and Saengsawang has a complicated explanation for how certain spices hit the palate, and elsewhere, in different ways.
“Farmhouse Kitchen uses spices from Mongolia and China,” he said. “If you bite a Sichuan peppercorn, it’s not going to your tongue, it goes to your nose first and then under your eyes and then to your brain. With the red bird’s eye chile, the heat goes from your nose down your jaw and then to your stomach and then comes back to your brain.”
Another house favorite is the Run Juan Seafood Sizzling ($24.50), which is advertised as “SPICY” in red as well as in all capital letters on the menu. Consider yourself warned.
Saengsawang said that after this dish appeared on television, many people order it and love it. “The spice goes into your brain and you get relaxed because the body releases a special hormone.”
Maybe that’s true, but I found it too spicy for my taste, even though I don’t consider myself spice-timid.
My husband called it “ballsy and sophisticated.”
Ultimately, the restaurant is all about fun; the interior back room is festooned with flowers, and the staff sings happy birthday in Thai for those who are celebrating. It’s a little bit on the kitschy side, but it’s deliberate and it works.
“The blue rice breaks the ice for people on a first date and kids really like it because it’s fancy, while the gentleman who traveled to Thailand and saw the blue rice there is more excited about it,” he said, noting that he hopes people will feel comfortable enough to share plates and perhaps, even eat with their hands. “I’m not sticking with any kind of restaurant rules; we’re doing a new thing and you feel the positive energy right away when you walk in.”
No doubt about that. The mood at Farmhouse Kitchen was energetic and fun, and the flavors are bright, elevated and unexpected. Our meal there made me fall in love with Thai food all over again.