A contemporary Thai American restaurant is opening in Oakland this summer with a tropical vibe, cocktails and a seasonal menu from the chef behind San Francisco's popular Isaan Thai pop-up Intu-on .
Called Jo's Modern Thai, the restaurant is slated for a July 1 grand opening in the former Miliki space at 3725 MacArthur Boulevard in the Laurel District. Owner Kao Saelee, an Oakland native whose family has run low-key Berkeley Thai spot Racha Cafe for 16 years, is envisioning a fun, upbeat space with boozy drinks and a tight menu of Thai dishes prepared in unexpected ways.
The pad Thai will come with soft shell crab or lobster instead of traditional shrimp ($18), for example, while the spicy pad kee mao could be ordered with stir-fried spaghetti instead of rice noodles, plus smoked brisket from Oakland's Smokin' Woods BBQ ($18).
"Ultimately, this restaurant concept came about from me being a Thai American and having a different palate growing up," said Saelee, who named the restaurant after his fiancée. "I wanted to make somewhere where people will come, have a good time and not say, 'I went to this Thai place and it was difficult to make a decision.'"
The menu was designed by chef Intu-on Kornnawong, who cooked at Michelin-starred Kin Khao before drawing a following for her fiery, funky pop-up fare during the pandemic — though she will not be the day-to-day chef at Jo's.
"It's Thai drinking food but not specific in what type of food — Bangkok, Isaan, it's all that's cool," Kornnawong said.
Some dishes will feel fairly traditional, but higlight a protein other local Thai restaurants likely don't use. Think tom kha, the creamy coconut soup often seen with chicken, swirled with littleneck clams ($19), or a sweet-sour red curry made with pork jowl ($21). On the more creative end of the spectrum, there's a burger stuffed with Isaan-style fried pork laab and kaffir lime mayo ($16).
The restaurant space, with about 40 indoor seats and 25 in a back patio, will be outfitted in pastel pinks, blues and greens. Palm tree wallpaper, terrazzo tiles and mixed textiles give it a modern feel, as envisioned by ROY designers, known for hip San Francisco spots like Wildseed, SPQR and Media Noche. Kornnawong said it reminds her of restaurants near the beach in the Southern part of Thailand.
To drink, there will be cocktails from Laurel Robinson, who has consulted for top San Francisco bars like Trick Dog, and natural wine, exclusively from minority-owned and women winemakers. The restaurant is starting out with just dinner, though Saelee hopes to add lunch and weekend brunch down the line.
This should be a strikingly different kind of Thai restaurant for Oakland, where most Thai spots are low-key mom-and-pops offering similar menus. Among Chronicle critic Soleil Ho's picks for the best Thai restaurants in the Bay Area , only one is in Oakland: Vientian Cafe, which actually specializes in Lao dishes. Others on the short, eight-item list include Kornnawong's pop-up Intu-on and the chef's previous workplace, Kin Khao, suggesting serious promise for Jo's.
Jo's Modern Thai. Opening July 1. 3725 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. www.instagram.com/josoakland
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]
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