Khong River House: Boat Noodles, Cool Digs, and Hot Hooch in SoBe
Khong River House is buzzing on a chilly Friday night. Waiters add to the clamor, adeptly pronouncing Thai ingredients such as khaep mu (crisp pork rinds) and nam prik num (green chili pepper salsa). Across the dining room, hipsters, bloggers, and socialites cram tightly packed tables. They tweet, Instagram, and rattle on about the spot's fresh egg noodles and startlingly spicy cuisine.
At this South Beach joint, located a few steps from tourist-centric Lincoln Road, a horde of hopeful walk-ins waits by the entrance. The restaurant has been booked for days. They are here for, among other things, technicolor plates of crispy tofu salad — deep-fried bits of soybean curd glazed with red chili vinegar dressing and tossed alongside cucumbers, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, and roasted crushed peanuts.
The place opened four months ago, but its reputation is already solid in food and media circles. Khong's cocktail program earned accolades from Saveur. It beat José Andrés's the Bazaar and garnered a four-star review from the Miami Herald. It even secured a spot as a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for best new restaurant in the nation.
Khong is the new concept by 50 Eggs Inc., a multifaceted creative team spearheaded by CEO John Kunkel. The red-haired, freckled fellow with an unrelenting entrepreneurial spirit and well-groomed goatee built his company on PR-oriented theories and MBA terminology. Employees mutter words such as brand development and identity design along with elbow grease and shrimp 'n' grits.
Kunkel developed Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, a chain of fast-casual restaurants, and then sold the company to Ruby Tuesday for $24 million in 2012. 50 Eggs builds more than just restaurants. Its roster of marketing clients ranges from Tim McGraw to the Miami Heat and Muhammad Ali.
Kunkel's first venture in upscale dining premiered two years ago, when 50 Eggs partnered with Jeff McInnis, a dapper Top Chef contestant who grew up between a shrimping town named Niceville in the Florida Panhandle and a farm in Tunnel Springs, Alabama. Kunkel, originally from Georgia, supplied McInnis with his grandmother Llewellyn's recipe for 27-hour-brined fried chicken. Together, they opened Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in South Beach. McInnis's cooking was categorized as farm-centered Southern. The team festooned the bar with bottles of bourbon and illuminated the space with Mason-jar chandeliers. The place was an immediate hit.
Cynics jab at Yardbird's inorganic interior design, as well as its hyperbolic Southern drawl, which is splattered all over its active Twitter feed. A wall in the restaurant reads, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love fried chicken and communists." Some scoff; others chuckle. Regardless, Yardbird succeeds because of its well-executed concept of good value, clever branding, tasty eats, and cool vibes.
In 2012, 50 Eggs launched its second full-service restaurant. This time, the concept moved away from south of the Mason-Dixon line and delved into Southeast Asia. Kunkel, who studied ancient martial arts in Thailand for more than three years during his 20s, was inspired by the foods found across the northern Mekong river, particularly in Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and Thailand. Those flavors influence the pristine style of cooking proffered at Khong.
While old-school chefs across Miami-Dade knock out hearty, thick curries, Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, a native of the Chiang Rai province in Northern Thailand, who is also known as Chef Bee, fuses Asian cuisine with fresh salads, quick pickles, and a helluva lot of hot red chilies. Arreeratn cooked at Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymous South Beach restaurant in the Shore Club, as well as at Siam River under local chef Kevin Cory. In 2005, Arreeratn owned an acclaimed Thai restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard named Oishi Thai. Now at Khong, Chef Bee is rethinking the spectrum of Miami's Northern Thai cuisine.
Like Llewellyn's fried chicken, dishes at this SoBe joint go back a few generations to 50 Eggs' kin. The boat noodle dish, a recipe from Chef Bee's family, features a pho-like combination of rice noodles and robust auburn broth, enriched with fish sauce, beef blood, fried garlic, and Thai chili vinegar. Biting aromas stem from anise, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon, as well as pandan leaves, scallions, and cilantro. Tender pork meatballs bob atop the steaming liquid. The piquant stock and intrepid flavors jolt diners as soon as basins are set on the table.
With Momi Ramen in Brickell, Miami got great ramen. With Khong, the Magic City has first-class boat noodles.
Thai crispy duck, another recipe from Chef Bee's family, is a Maple Leaf Farms bird with pleasingly brittle skin and moist, tender meat. Sautéed with sliced white onions and drenched in a sauce made with sweet peppers and fresh basil, the duck is sprinkled with young green peppercorns and slender red chilies. Staffers warn patrons: Do not take a bite of the peppers. Diners do anyway, and at tables in the front dining area, it's common to overhear strangers asking for second helpings of sticky rice and refills of water.
The same peppers swim in cocktails at Khong. Gin is the restaurant's signature booze. In the Killer B, Beefeater gin pairs with lemon juice and a syrup infused with white peppercorns and Thai bird chilies. (Now that's some hot hooch.) There are also 34 ways to drink an aviation, the classic cocktail with maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon juice.
Ordering off the menu at Khong is often exciting, and many dishes were previously hard to find in Miami. Still, despite the nearly flawless fiery fare, some portion sizes are inconsistent. There is too much of a Florida shrimp salad, doused in a loose roasted chili paste with lemongrass and lime juice, and too little of a char-grilled Thai eggplant dish — thick slivers of slightly scorched purple plant with minced pork, Thai basil, and oyster sauce. During each visit to the restaurant, our party ran out of sticky rice. One should never run out of sticky rice.
Of course, these tiny faults are not what's important about Khong River House. Nor is the tasty cuisine, sleek surroundings, or the hip mixology program. Khong's venture into Northern Thai cuisine proves that Kunkel and 50 Eggs' first-born Yardbird was no fluke. The creative team has developed and perfected a successful, all-encompassing restaurant concept: farm-centered ingredients, stylish digs, smart branding, a young chef, and good grub. In a city where few restaurants come and stay, Khong is an astounding achievement.
And while patrons line up to sample more of Chef Bee's house-made Chiang Rai sausages and crabmeat fried rice at Khong, another 50 Eggs concept debuts at a Coral Gables location on Ponce de Leon Boulevard near Miracle Mile. Swine Southern Table & Bar promises lots of bourbon and a pork-filled menu.
Let the fan frenzy begin again.
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