Thai Street Food Takes Off in Hollywood
Years after upending his parents’ business, Kris Yenbamroong finds success with Night + Market.
On a recent Saturday night, dozens of young people packed Night + Market, a Thai restaurant on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Beer towers topped sticky laminate-wood tables. A server with a man bun and a bubblegum-pink apron rushed around with plastic plates. There may have been music; it was hard to tell over all the shouted conversations. The cumulative effect was more TGI Fridays than fine dining—a comparison Night + Market chef Kris Yenbamroong embraces. “We’re definitely a party place, and I’ve always wanted to be that,” he says. “We get a crazy, fun, derelict kind of crowd.”
With another Night + Market in Los Angeles’s trendy Silver Lake neighborhood and a third slated to open in Venice this fall, Yenbamroong, 34, is presiding over a mini-empire. Now he’s going for chef stardom, something few people hawking “ethnic” cuisine have attained. In July he signed with Lisa Shotland at Creative Artists Agency, whose clients include Roy Choi, L.A.’s Korean taco impresario, and Duff Goldman, the star of Food Network’s Ace of Cakes. Yenbamroong’s first cookbook is due out in a year. After that, who knows? “Most people think, I want to go into my community and do this,” Shotland says, explaining that young chefs don’t always share Yenbamroong’s aspirations. “I look at some contemporaries, like Andy Ricker”—the chef of Pok Pok, a Thai standard-bearer in Portland, Ore., which has outposts in New York and L.A.—“and I feel like that’s something Kris will do. The question is, how quickly?”
Yenbamroong grew up at Talésai, the Americanized Thai restaurant his parents opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1982, the year he was born. (Wolfgang Puck was a regular.) From 13 to 17, he lived in Bangkok and Chiang Rai, Thailand, then returned to the U.S. to study film at New York University. In 2008 his parents called him back to California to help run the family business. He failed at first. “I had no idea where the money came from,” he says. He discontinued lunch service and takeout—major sources of revenue—and blew cash on a renovation. “The only good part was some dishes that I added to the menu tasted good, but no one wanted them,” he says. “They wanted the same thing they had been eating every Sunday night for 20 years”: spring rolls and red curry, not Thai-style beef jerky with spicy chili dip.
The space next to Talésai opened up in 2010, and his family leased it, intending to use it for private events. Yenbamroong began throwing boozy dinners there with pals such as Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. He made the jerky for them, and something clicked. “I realized, it seems like my friends are having a lot of fun, I should do it for the public,” he says. He dubbed the space Night + Market and began serving dinner in November 2010—though “only four nights a week,” he says. “Another one of my stupid ideas.”
Yenbamroong’s menus shun fine-dining trends in favor of the kind of street food he loved in Thailand. He credits his dad with schooling him in business, but he’s had other mentors, including David Rosoff, the former general manager of Mozza, an Italian restaurant group in L.A. His fans run the foodie gamut, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Anthony Bourdain. “I didn’t make the rounds in all these famous kitchens,” he says. “I’m with all these full-blown chef dudes, which I’m not.”
In 2015, Night + Market took over the portion of the building originally used by Talésai. Yenbamroong used to pride himself on being small and subversive, but now going big is its own form of rebellion. “If I were to do a supper club and invite 10 people a night, that would be expected,” he says. “For me to come out of this totally different world and say, ‘I want to do a fast-casual restaurant’—that’s super transgressive. I’m not supposed to be part of that club.”