A stylish, slightly upscale Thai restaurant with hip, modern decor? In Oakland, that's nothing new. The recently opened Rockridge restaurant Yimm falls neatly into that category, with its menu of colorful cocktails and dinnerware that look like they're straight out of Pinterest.
But a look at Yimm's menu reveals plenty of items that are refreshingly new — new, at least, to the East Bay's food scene. I don't know of anywhere else around here that serves Thai corn salad, beef salad with green apples, or most intriguingly, American fried rice.
That's because owner Aya Amornpan and her husband, chef, and co-owner Note Mansawataphaiboon, are on a mission to bring hard-to-find dishes from their hometown of Bangkok to the East Bay. Several years ago, the couple opened their first restaurant, Imm Thai Street Food, in Berkeley. Now, with Yimm, they're keeping some street food favorites from Imm, while introducing a section of the menu dedicated to the home cooking they ate growing up.
Take, for example, the beef salad with green apples. You'll find grilled beef salad with red onions, mint, cilantro, and fish sauce on plenty of Thai menus, but Yimm adds a twist to the dish with thinly sliced green apple. Amornpan actually ate beef salad with apples growing up — her family's attempt to sneak some healthy fruit into the kids' diets while also adding textural interest. The tart apples complemented the sweetness and slight funk of the fish sauce, while the red onions, herbs, and halved cherry tomatoes added bursts of freshness. I would have liked more heat, though Amornpan notes diners can request dishes be made more or less spicy.
The restaurant also puts a twist on an appetizer of fried oyster mushrooms, popular back in Thailand, by adding slices of fried avocado. The batter was flavorful and surprisingly light, and while the batter overshadowed the flavors a bit, notes of umami from the mushrooms and creaminess from the avocado shone through. The dip of sweet chili sauce was neither too sweet nor too thick, as some versions can be.
Other dishes, like the corn salad, draw inspiration from restaurant trends in Bangkok, where Amornpan and her husband visit every year. The crunchy, fresh corn kernels burst with sweetness with each bite, bolstered in texture by the crisp green beans and peanuts. Tomatoes and shredded carrot amped up the freshness of the dish, while tiny dried shrimp added hints of pungency and saltiness. A lime, chili, garlic, and fish sauce dressing aimed to tie everything together.
As for the street food-inspired items, I particularly enjoyed the kua gai, a new-to-me dish of flat rice noodles stir-fried into a cake-like shape, bound together by a thin layer of scrambled egg with plenty of chicken, calamari, and shrimp, and served with lettuce. The noodles were imbued with plenty of smoky, charred flavor from the wok, while the chewy texture of the noodles exuded pure comfort food. The calamari and shrimp added bouncy texture, while a sriracha-based sauce on the side livened up the dish. The dish was also served with nuggets of fried dough that resembled peanuts, adding craveable crunch.
Other than the kua gai, you'll find most of the more unusual entrées listed on the Home Cooking section. Amornpan grew up eating pa-lo — pork belly, marinated hard-boiled eggs, and fried tofu in a dark, slightly sweet sauce fragrant with five-spice powder. The pork belly infused the dish with rich, fatty flavor, while the eggs packed plenty of umami flavor and creamy yolks. Best of all, though, were the cubes of fried tofu that soaked up the sauce like sponges and burst upon biting into them.
The home cooking menu also includes avocado green curry with shrimp — a variation on red pumpkin curry that Amornpan's mother made one day when she only had green curry on hand and decided that avocados would pair with green curry well. The curry was assertively spicy but not excessively so, while the chunks of avocado added cool creaminess for balance and richness. The shrimp were plump and perfectly cooked, while lightly cooked green beans and red bell pepper added crunch.
I was especially curious about the American fried rice because I'd never seen anything like it in the States. It's rice stir-fried with ketchup, raisins, and peas, served with a runny fried egg on top and hot dogs, fried chicken wings, and slices of tomato and cucumber on the side. There are a number of possible origin stories for this dish: some say it was invented for American soldiers stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam war, while others say it was invented at an airport restaurant. Amornpan conjectures it was invented in Thai hotels for American tourists who couldn't handle spice. Amornpan said it's a popular dish among kids in Bangkok, and it's easy to see why. The rice was comfortingly sticky, while the ketchup and raisins added sweetness. Though the chicken wings were underseasoned, the flavorful, juicy hot dogs were sliced at the ends so they resembled blossoms, with extra crispy surface area for a delightful combination of textures.
And while you'll find the usual mango and sticky rice dessert here — albeit a very good version — you'll also find desserts here that I haven't found at any other local Thai restaurants. A simple, refreshing dessert of herbal grass jelly topped with shaved ice and a sprinkling of brown sugar was perfect for cooling down after a plate of spicy green avocado curry.
But my favorite was a dessert of sweet bread served with pandan custard. The custard was warm, eggy, and fragrant with the vanilla-like scent of pandan. The pillow-like pieces of bread were fluffy and sweet — like eating a cloud dipped into a comforting custard. This dessert is commonly served as street food rather than home cooking, Amornpan noted — but eating it, I felt right at home.