One of downtown Phoenix’s hottest new restaurants moves into a familiar black-painted bungalow on Second and Portland streets.
What was once Peter Kasperski and True North Studio’s Josephine gourmet restaurant Character before that, both open for less than a year, is now Lom Wong.
The Thai restaurant debuted in March, serving its motherland’s regional cuisines in a cozy space with exposed brickwork and mustard velvet curtains. A smiling hostess welcomes customers as they enter the restaurant.
One wall displays wine racks while rattan pendant lights shine against a green tiled bar. On a recent visit, an eager waiter gave a quick rundown of the menu. Stomachs growled in anticipation.
Luckily the cocktails arrived soon after and the boozy concoctions made the sweet night a bit more bearable. Thunder’s Pina Colada is airy and light, made with rum and coconut cream. A dash of fish sauce is added for a savory finish, and the Eleven Tigers, a smoky bourbon cocktail with Campari, grenadine and ya dong, an herb-infused Thai sugar cane liquor, turned out be excellent selections.
Lom Wong’s owners, Yotaka “Sunny” Martin and Alex Martin, have plenty of experience with Thai flavors. Yotaka grew up in a village in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, planting herb and rice gardens and raising animals, then cooking them alongside his mother and grandmother.
Alex lived in Thailand for 12 years, learning to speak the language fluently while working in academia.
“In the least romantic thing you can explain living in Thailand, of all the ways to meet, we met at a Starbucks,” Alex says.
However, their adventurous spirits bonded and they were soon inseparable, traveling to different parts of Chiang Mai province and hanging out in the kitchen with Yotaka’s family in northern Thailand.
When Alex’s father convinced Yotaka to come to the United States, the couple moved to Washington, hosting Thai barbecue pop-ups from their backyard. They eventually moved to Phoenix, plans for Lom Wong in hand, and held their first pop-up here in June 2019.
new times named the fragrant and intimate dinners “Best Pop-Up” in 2020 and 2021.
Now served in their brick-and-mortar restaurant, the menu is decidedly more unusual than those of the bungalow’s predecessors built in 1919. Find Som Tum Gai Yaang, a green papaya salad with charcoal-grilled chicken leg, and Tom Yum Haend Sen Yai, large rice noodles sautéed with straw mushrooms and langoustine head.
The dishes arrive as each dish is ready and they are made to be shared: from small plates to big flavors.
“We had a table on the patio last night who ordered one of everything on the menu,” our server informed us. Quite the idea.
The Yam Mamuang Boran, a green mango salad with hand torn prawns, arrived at our table first. It was drizzled with fresh coconut cream, lime and the distinct flavor of fish sauce. Toasted coconut, peanuts and fried shallots gave the refreshing dish a nice crunch. Shrimp was scarce so don’t expect hearty protein.
A different take on protein, Kaeng Hang Lay Pork Belly Curry, came next. This dish comes from Northern Thailand and the recipe lacks the oft-expected coconut milk that many Thai curries are known for. Tender pork belly adorned the aromatic stew, topped with ginger matchsticks, roasted peanuts and a hint of tamarind. It is best to pour it generously over the accompanying jasmine rice.
As the evening wore on, the once bustling dining room began to quiet down. It’s been a busy few months for the Martins, who hand-mash their curry paste and hand-squeeze their coconut milk. The two had their firstborn, baby Noah, just weeks after opening in March.
“Sunny was in the kitchen until the day before she was born,” Alex said. “She’s a badass.”
She was probably cooking dishes like Chu Bai Neung Boo Wak Now, lightly steamed squid in a Thai chili, lime and garlic sauce garnished with a generous helping of cilantro. It was just as refreshing, if not exactly as delicious, as the mango salad. Definitely sip the spiced juice afterwards.
The Gai Tawt Won Pen, crispy fried chicken with Thai chili sauce, appeared last. It was a solid, crunchy and substantial dish, but it paled in comparison to the punchy flavors of its counterparts.
Lom Wong’s plates are mighty in flavor, but small. We enjoyed four before dessert. One or two more would have been welcome. It can be expensive to stock up, so go with a group to get more bang for your buck and sample seasonal dishes you might not be able to catch next time.
Finally, it was time for dessert. Crème brûlée remains classic, even if it comes in two forms: Tom Kha, a lemongrass and coconut version, close to the original but with a twist, and Roselle, named after a species of hibiscus, is milky and sweet with some flavor and a pale pink hue.
Lom Wong’s menus are seasonal, so expect a new journey through Thailand, its flavors and the Martins’ experiences with each visit.
“Food is more than what’s on the plate in front of you. There are stories, people who cooked it, generations of heritage and expertise. It’s our goal to showcase and to honor that,” says Alex. “When people walk into our restaurant, they walk into our house and we cook for them like they’re family.”
218 Portland Street East
Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.