Jo’s Modern Thai, a highly anticipated new East Bay restaurant, opens its doors in Oakland’s Laurel District on Friday, July 23. Born of a partnership between chef Intu-on Kornnawong, who formerly worked at Michelin-starred Kin Khao and launched the popular Intu-on pop-up during the pandemic, and owner Kao Saelee, whose family is behind Berkeley Thai spot Racha Cafe, the restaurant looks to offer bold Thai flavor in beachy and laidback environs.
If chef Intu-on Kornnawong’s eponymous pandemic-era pop-up was a no-holds-barred introduction to the uncompromising flavors of northeastern Thai cuisine, then the menu she’s created for Jo’s Modern Thai stands to be a more measured experience, a lesson in bridging the gap between her Issan roots and her northern California present.
Kornnawong describes her pop-up menu in terms of her own experiences: “The concept there is about a Thai drinking story,” Kornnawong says. “It’s about my story, it’s about where I’m from, Issan.” But when it comes to the full menu for Jo’s restaurant, Kornnawong deliberately describes the food as “Thai-Californian cuisine,” making efforts to underscore how the menu marries the foods she grew up eating — perhaps at a beachside restaurants in southern Thailand — and the ingredients and ethos she’s inherited from working at top California restaurants including Kin Khao and Night + Market in Los Angeles. “I would say it’s Thai American, but some people are like, is this Thai fusion?” she says. “I don’t want to say Thai fusion, you know? Because we still make really authentic flavors, but we just change seasonal ingredients or the produce we can get here because we’re not in Thailand.”
There will always be a selection of specials available, but the core dishes won’t change very often, though the specific ingredients will rotate according to what’s geographically and seasonally available. For example, Kornnawong says Jo’s pad Thai will feature lobster or soft shell crab, which are easier to find than the small prawns you’d typically see in restaurants in Thailand. And the spicy pad kee mao will showcase brisket sourced from Oakland’s Smokin’ Woods BBQ. On the more modern side, there’s a laab pork burger Kornnawong says she put on the menu because it’s simply what she loves to eat. “I’m an Asian kid. The American food I liked was burgers, so I was thinking, why don’t we put that on the menu and do something different?” For the drinks list, Tayler Sampson (Starline Social Club) has brought a menu of vibrant, tropical drinks to the bar along with a natural wine selection.
When the polished, boldly colored space debuts, diners will finally be able to enter the Oakland restaurant for dinner service five nights a week. Elegant touches including Terrazzo tabletops and peacock blue walls balance more tropical elements like rattan barstools and an accent wall wrapped in leafy paper. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s back patio could be a resort oasis with lounge seating, tropical plants, and stylish shade canopies.
Owner Saelee helped his family run Racha Cafe for 16 years, and says he’s always wanted to bring something fun back to the Laurel District where he went to high school. “Growing up in Oakland and seeing the changes from a demographic [standpoint], I always wanted to be a part of that,” he says. “You know, to have something to welcome people so that the people here can have different options, can have healthier options, instead of having to travel to San Francisco or further down into Oakland.” He hopes Jo’s will be an accessible and approachable option for the neighborhood; it’s fundamental to the restaurant’s identity, starting with the name. “Jo” isn’t just an arbitrary moniker but a reference to Saelee’s fiancee, who he says had never eaten Thai food before they started dating but has since fallen in love with the cuisine. Similarly, Jo’s aims to be a place where diners who’ve never had Thai food before can navigate the menu with ease.
With Jo’s opening, Kornnawong says she’s in the process of winding down her popular pop-ups for now — but that doesn’t mean they’ll be gone forever. She’s playing with the idea of doing them on Mondays and Tuesdays, when Jo’s is closed. “For Jo’s, I’m gonna be here more, you know, as a chef, to make sure everything is cool. I would say I’m going to stay here longer than this month, for sure,” she says.
Jo’s Modern Thai opens on Friday, July 23. Dinner will be served 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday with plans to add lunch and brunch in the coming months. Walk-ins only.