While John Kunkel, mastermind behind the Lime Fresh chain, was building out his second location in 2005 at the Biscayne Commons shopping center in North Miami Beach, he ventured into Oishi Thai next door.
Owned by chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, former sous chef at South Beachs Nobu, the place had just opened and already had a reputation for being a cut above. Kunkel, who spent three years in Southeast Asia in his 20s learning an ancient form of Thai boxing, quickly became a regular.
The food was excellent, but it was the American version of Thai food, basically the southern Thai style heavy on the coconut curries, says Kunkel. But one day I stumbled in around 4 or 5 p.m. when the staff was about to sit down for family meal, and for themselves they had made some very traditional northern Thai dishes. That was the food I wanted and couldnt find anywhere.
Arreeratn, better known as Chef Bee, is from the northern Chaing Rai region of Thailand, but figured his South Florida clientele wanted familiar fare. Kunkel, meanwhile, had always wanted a restaurant that served the rustic northern Thai dishes he had fallen in love with: the sour pork, the kaffir lime, the hot chiles, the Burmese, Laotian and Vietnamese influenced dishes.
Fast forward to December, when he opened Khong River House just off Lincoln Road in the old Miss Yip space with Chef Bee as executive chef. Its the second post-Lime Fresh venture for Kunkel, who in 2011 opened the successful Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and in April sold his fast-casual Mexican chain to Ruby Tuesdays for $24 million.
When we started working on the project, we flew in a couple of chefs from New York who really understood the kind of Thai food we wanted to serve. But then we had Chef Bee come in and cook for our team, and he blew everyone else away, Kunkel says.
Khong, which bills itself as an approachable fine dining spot, is designed to evoke the boating culture and farmhouses along the Mekong River. Wall paneling is repurposed Thai shipping pallets, bare Edison light bulbs dangle from electric cords, and the weathered ceiling is of corrugated tin.
Servers are regularly quizzed about the not-so-familiar menu. Go ahead, about the gai yaang, or rotisserie chicken, marinated for two days in coconut milk and stuffed with lemon grass, turmeric, garlic and coriander seeds. Or the gang hang laey muu, pork belly with chile paste, lemon grass, turmeric, garlic and palm sugar in a pickled garlic and tamarind broth. Ask about the kha muu pa low, whole pork leg braised in herbs, spices and oyster sauce, served with chile vinegar and fresh steamed buns.
This cuisine is a language, history and geography lesson, Kunkel says. This restaurant tells a story. When servers go out with a dish, we ask them to repeat the name, to be able to explain something about it.
His Southeast Asian sojourn in the early 1990s 100 percent helped shape the kind of adult I would become, the 41-year-old says.
I was 6 feet tall, 185 pounds, fighting as a light-heavyweight, and here comes a little guy, 5-2, who just wallops me. Most of my teachers were half my size. For an aggressive young American guy, it was a great humbling experience. It makes you reset your ego.
Thailand immediately got under Kunkels skin, and he has returned many times.
It was cultural and visual overload, he says. You would go to the market and see people drinking snake blood, whacking chickens right there and pulling feathers off. There was no cultural or visual similarity to anything I had known. I loved being the odd man out. I loved being surrounded every single day with nothing that I was familiar with.
Kunkels first job in the restaurant business was washing dishes at 15. He has been a bar back, a bartender and more. Eventually he moved up to management for Chilis Grill & Bar and Einstein Bros. Bagels. In 2001, he opened Taste Bakery at Ninth Street and Alton Road.
I opened underfunded, and then Sept. 11 hit. I had to let the whole staff go. We slowly built the business from there, with my wife and my brother delivering muffins and helping out in the store. Eventually I got out of debt.
Just as he righted his finances, he stumbled across a space at 14th Street and Alton Road that was up for grabs.
It was a total hole in the wall. I remember walking my wife over there. I had written this menu for this Mexican concept. But we had just gotten out of debt. There was this little tear, and then she said, Are you sure it will be successful?
Lime, offering fresh ingredients and health-conscious options, had a line out the front door from the moment it opened in 2004.
Everybody had said Mexican food wouldnt work in Miami because there was too much of a Latin, but not Mexican population. I said, Oh, really? That just added fuel to the fire for me. The same way that hearing that nobody would eat fried chicken on South Beach added fuel to the fire when I was thinking about opening Yardbird.
Kunkel could easily have taken his big Ruby Tuesday payday and kissed off the risky, labor-intensive restaurant business. But hes set on becoming a Miami restaurant king, though not, he says, on starting another chain.
In a few weeks, his company, 50 Eggs Inc., will open Swine Southern Table & Bar, a pork-focused cousin to Yardbird, in the former Brasserie Les Halles space in Coral Gables.
Next comes Kungfuzi, a 700-square-foot noodle shop on Alton Road, across the street from the original Lime (the only Lime Kunkel still operates) that will serve a small menu of noodle dishes and Vietnamese-style sandwiches until 5 a.m.
But perhaps the project he is most excited about is Test Kitchen, slated to open later this year at the former Sunshine Motel at Biscayne Boulevard and 74th Street. He envisions it as a teaching center for underprivileged kids and a community test kitchen for local chefs as well as a venue for high-end private dinners by visiting culinary stars.
I think about The Federal, Blue Collar, Sakaya Kitchen when I think about Miamis real culinary scene. Those guys are gaining momentum. But when youre working in a busy kitchen, you dont have the time or space to test new ideas, Kunkel says.
Test Kitchen is a place where young chefs can come free of charge and spend the day working, meeting other chefs. The one thing Miami had lacked for a long time was a sense of community in the restaurant scene. Were finally seeing that sense of community. And I want to help grow that.