Oakland's Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine is a Shining Star
Restaurateur Kasem Saengsawang brings his dazzling fare to Jack London Square.
The succulent panang nuea short rib is slow braised and served with grilled broccolini and fried basil.
Photos courtesy of Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine
In less than four years, Kasem Saengsawang has built a Thai dynasty. With the June debut of Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine in Jack London Square, he and his wife, Kumuth Chatterjee, have given birth to four restaurants. Their latest Oakland eatery boasts an ornate 3,600-square-foot dining room, bar, and tiki-style patio, and serves inventive and stunningly presented Thai food.
The original Farmhouse Kitchen opened to popular acclaim in San Francisco in 2015. The following year came Daughter Thai (the name refers to the couple’s hardworking young apprentice and manager, Kimberly Gamble) in Montclair. Encouraged by their early successes, the pair launched Farmhouse Kitchen in Portland, Oregon, less than six months later.
While the genesis of Saengsawang’s restaurant empire can be traced to his boyhood in Thailand, the whole venture seems improbable.
After immigrating to the United States in 2005, Saengsawang—a bright, soft-spoken man—went to City College of San Francisco with the idea of becoming the next Bill Gates. But after taking a kitchen job to support his studies, he discovered a passion for cooking.
“I totally fell in love with the way customers came to me and said, ‘Thank you so much. Your food is fantastic,’ ” Saengsawang says.
So, he abandoned his interest in a high-tech career and spent the next decade working in both small and corporate Thai restaurants, eventually deciding to start his own business.
Ironically, as a young boy, Saengsawang resented grocery shopping and prepping food for his grandmother. He recalls whining, “Why me?” Now, he reflects back on those days with deep gratitude.
On our first visit to his new Farmhouse, we started with the textural blue rice salad. The jasmine grains are steamed and then tinted with pigment from the colorful butterfly pea flower; it’s a perfect example of Saengsawang’s refined interpretation of the countryside fare he enjoyed as a child. Encircled by a ring of peanuts, coconut, and seasonal shredded green mango, the dish is inspired by his grandma’s impromptu snacks. But the alluring presentation—along with crispy shallots and puffed brown rice (steamed, dried, and fried)—makes it pop. The salad is tossed tableside with ginger, kaffir lime, and bitter leaf.
While the menu is priced higher than that of a typical Thai restaurant, the portions are as generous as the flavors are explosive. Two hearty fillets of salmon—marinated in fish sauce and herbs, then seared to juicy perfection—are served with a mountain of fresh herbs, cool vermicelli noodles, and a creamy, spicy peanut sauce spiked with sour tamarind. The entrée comes with lettuce wraps, but it’s difficult not to just dig in.
A massive short rib that’s braised in panang nuea curry for 48 hours evokes a childhood memory, Saengsawang says, of when a whole cow was cooked luau-style for two days to celebrate Thai New Year. (He still recalls the beefy aromas wafting into his bedroom.) Served on a red plate with blue rice and fresh greens, it calls for a party. Even the chicken is dramatic: A whole breast is fried in a red curry–paste batter and served with a giant knife thrust into its crunchy skin.
And these are just a few of the specials; the menu itself is extensive, featuring an assortment of curries—all prepared with fish sauce for authenticity—and street-style snacks, such as the green beans (perfectly pan-fried in spicy chili paste with crispy tofu).
Guests can also graze on appetizers, such as the sticky whole chicken wings (tips included because nothing goes to waste in Saengsawang’s homeland) steamed through, twice-fried, and coated in a smoky chili oil infused with garlic and Sichuan peppercorns. Wow. We also loved the succulent beef wraps: marinated strips of Wagyu flank meat rolled around refreshing bits of cucumber and earthy cilantro.
This sort of fare is best enjoyed at the ’80s-inspired, retro-chic bar, where diners can watch fresh oysters being shucked and choose from American and Thai beers, as well as craft cocktails. Or sit out on the relaxed, bamboo-adorned patio; it’s particularly nice on warm nights.
One would think Saengsawang would be content to rest for a while, but he already has plans to combine Farmhouse Kitchen with the vacant space next door, practically doubling its size. Luckily, Grandma—who’s almost 90 now—is visiting more often and can help look after his young daughter while the dynasty continues to grow. 336 Water St., Oakland, (510) 419-0541, farmhouseoak.com. Lunch and dinner daily.