The table next to ours at Jo’s Modern Thai returned their uneaten “crispy catfish taco” to the kitchen. In the description of that starter on the menu, the words “fluffy” and “taco” upset their expectations. While it’s true that there really is nothing fluffy about the catfish that appears in this dish, it was exceptionally crispy and exceptionally tasty. A simple menu edit—dropping the word fluffy and calling it a lettuce wrap—would have cleared the matter right up.
But Kao Saelee, the restaurant’s owner, deliberately added in the word “modern” when he named the place. Bay Area diners who’ve been eating Thai food for decades will find familiar dishes upended, reshaped and—more often than not—revivified. The aforementioned taco, for instance, has much more in common with a Burmese tea leaf salad than it does with that Mexican standby.
Golden bits of deep-fried catfish—that should be more accurately called “catfish croutons”—arrive in a bowl filled with bright colors and even brighter flavors. There’s a mix of green mango, avocado, cashews, herbs, fried shallots and toasted coconut, although the key ingredient is a spicy fish sauce and lime dressing. If you like the tangy, sour taste of lime hitting the front and center of your palate, order this dish.
Sensing our neighbors’ post-taco distress, I strongly recommended the pork laab burger. The chef, Intu-On Kornnawong, combines the ingredients of what is usually served as a laab salad—often spelled as “larb”—and cleverly presses everything together into a luscious fried patty. It took me nearly three seconds to eat my half. The burger is perfectly dressed with lime mayo and just the right amount of lettuce, cucumber and herbs resting inside a toasted brioche bun. I’d rather have that burger again over any other species of cheeseburger.
The atmosphere inside Jo’s Modern Thai is aglow and energetic, like the flickering filaments of a light bulb. Servers rush past the kitchen, calling out orders or busily delivering drinks and dishes to their customers. The robust cocktail and beverage menu is clearly conducive to chatter, laughter and conversation. While we waited for a table on the green metal chairs out front, another couple ordered cans of beer to drink while waiting to be seated. The hostess brought out their beers as we drifted away to our seats on the back patio.
Our second starter was a grilled beef short rib that I had pictured on the bone. Instead, several thin slices of “medium rare beef” arrived on the plate. A circular sliver of cucumber sat beneath each slice of beef, which was topped with a grilled tomato salsa. All of the dish’s flavor came from that dark, jammy salsa, parenthetically named “jaew makheur thet.” In a head-to-head battle, the lettuce wrap would emerge victorious every time, but I did enjoy the earthy taste of tomato. Without it, I suspect the short rib might have been under seasoned and rarer than medium.
Chef Kornnawong also decided to include a variation on pad thai, the humble, hearty, dependable staple on nearly every Thai restaurant menu. Pairing the crunch of ghostly white bean sprouts with a tangle of chewy noodles is one of the great pleasures I derive from eating pad thai. At Jo’s, instead of shrimp or chicken, the plate comes with a lobster tail split in two to share with your companion. The tofu, better than many other brands, is fried Hodo. And, at the edge of the mound of noodles, there were two tiny hillocks. One was crushed peanuts, the other chili powder. For $23, it’s the lobster that drives up the price of an old favorite. Was it as memorable and inventive a dish as either the lettuce wrap or the burger? Not at all. But it was as comforting as any other pad thai plate—with the addition of a fancy shellfish to make it, if not entirely new, then a novelty to say you’ve sunk your teeth into.
Jo’s Modern Thai, open Wednesday to Sunday, 4–9pm, 3725 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. 510.479.3167. josmodernthai.com