Anticipation is growing for Jo’s Modern Thai in Oakland’s Laurel District. “A lot of neighbors have been checking us out, asking us when we’re going to open. We’ve been building this for seven months now,” says owner and Oakland native Kao Saelee, who is still waiting for approval of the restaurant’s liquor license. With a menu from a buzzed-about chef and a beverage program from a popular local bar manager, its debut can’t happen soon enough.
You might recognize chef Intu-on Kornnawong, a veteran of Michelin-starred SF restaurant Kin Khao, LA’s Night+Market and Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. Her breakout hit pop-up, the eponymously named Intu-on, draws crowds to spots like Birba Wine Bar and The Hidden Cafe in Berkeley. Kornnawong worked with Saelee on the menu, and will also serve as a chef in Jo’s kitchen. “When I walked through the restaurant, I said ‘this is the kitchen where I want to work,’” Kornnawong said. “I want to do more grilled foods. I also want to learn more about people in the East Bay too. … People there really support you; if they like your food, they will come back over and over.”
Kornnawong emphasized that the food at Jo’s Modern Thai will differ from the dishes served at her pop-up. “At Intu-on, my food was mostly Isaan, northeastern Thai food, but here at Jo’s it’s a cool new menu” focused on Thai drinking snacks and family-style food, not one particular region. Instead, the menu will reflect Kornnawong’s California and Thai-based influences as well as recipes from her and Saelee’s families. Expect dishes made with local and seasonal produce from Radical Family Farms in Sebastopol and Lee Family Farm in Fresno, as well as ingredients from Oakland’s Hodo Foods, Smokin’ Woods BBQ, and Little Giant Ice Cream. Lovers of Intu’s pop-up should take heart, though; some of those dishes may come back as specials from time to time at Jo’s.
Highlights from the menu include Jo’s “famous party wings” (fried pandan fish sauce chicken wings with crispy garlic, served with spicy jaew sauce and sweet and sour mayo), a pork laab burger (an Isaan-style pork patty, served with lettuce, cucumber, herbs, fried shallot, laab dressing and makrut lime mayo), lobster pad thai, pad kee mao made with barbecued brisket from Smokin Woods and a red curry with pork. Desserts will include crowd favorites like mango with sticky rice, as well as mango sorbet, seasonal shave ice with different flavors and Thai taro custard tarts served with Little Giant vanilla bean ice cream.
On the beverage front, Tayler Sampson, former bar manager at Starline Social Club, has designed a menu of fun, tropical-themed cocktails featuring fresh Thai herbs and fruit. The Phuket Fizz, for example, provides a twist on the mango and coconut flavor combo with house mango vodka, coconut water, coconut condensed milk, lemon, and soda. Jo’s will also serve Thai beer (Chang), natural wines and local beers.
Assuming Jo’s approvals move forward as planned, the new restaurant is set to open its 45-seat dining room mid-July. Jo’s also has 25 seats on its back patio, seats that will be opened for brunch and lunch service once the restaurant is fully staffed and service is running smoothly.
Saelee, whose family has run the Berkeley Thai restaurant Racha Cafe for the last 16 years, is excited to see his dream coming to fruition. “It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, have my own place. Being a foodie (and) growing up in the East Bay, I feel like this neighborhood needed a place like this,” a lively space where all are equally welcome: from the solo diner ordering a drink and snacks at the bar to neighbors looking for a good meal to celebratory groups of family and friends gathering over a delicious meal and festive drinks.
The grand opening for Jo’s Modern Thai is tentatively scheduled for July 16; keep an eye on its Instagram account for the latest. Operating hours will be 4-9 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, with takeout service available via Toast.