by jordan melnick | July 14, 2013 | Food & Drink
Kha mu palow mann tow (slow-cooked whole pork leg) at Khong.
John Kunkel at Khong River House, just off Lincoln Road.
The densely detailed interior of Khong River House.
Llewellyn’s Fine Fried Chicken at Yardbird.
The communal table at Swine Southern Table & Bar.
Blackberry bourbon lemonade from Yardbird.
You’re sitting in a chair made of weathered boat wood under the warm, low illumination of an exposed lightbulb. As the aromatic steam of tamarind broth tinged with turmeric and lemongrass wafts up from your bowl, you notice it’s raining, but you can’t hear the patter of raindrops on the rusted metal panels overhead. You wouldn’t hear them even if it weren’t so noisy in the restaurant, which is packed with locals and tourists, chattering between bites as if they were birds escaped from the empty wire cages hovering above the tables. This isn’t Thailand, after all, and that’s a ceiling, not a roof. You’re in Miami, just off Lincoln Road, although John Kunkel is happy you forgot where you are, if only for a moment.
Kunkel is not only the owner of said restaurant, Khong River House, he’s also the CEO of 50 Eggs, the creative agency that developed the identities, feel, and execution of Khong, as well as two other raved-about eateries, Yardbird, in South Beach, and the new Swine, in Coral Gables. All three manage to maintain an intimate, transportive atmosphere even when jammed with customers. “I love real stuff,” Kunkel says of the overall feel of all three restaurants. In a town with more than its fair share of high-concept kitchens, Kunkel’s latest eateries stand out with their densely detailed interiors and authentic regional menus; the wood, brick, aged metal, and clever touches add a sense of place and history.
About 10,000 miles away from Thailand is the southern Midwest of the United States, but luckily for us, Kunkel has brought them in close proximity. He recently introduced Swine, conceived as Yardbird’s pig-worshipping cousin from the South, a “cool, darker barbecue-and-blues joint” complete with “a smoker the size of a car” and a table in front of the kitchen that Kunkel describes as “one solid 25-foot butcher block.” The restaurant’s tufted, dark leather booths wrap along walls made of craggy brick and wood salvaged from a South Carolina barn. Piles of chopped wood share shelf space with the variegated rows of Mason jars packed with pickled okra, pickled peppers, and, of course, pickles. A giant barrel rests in the middle of the upstairs dining area. None of it is there for mere effect: The wood fuels the smoker, and the barrel is used for aging spirits in-house.
Although his restaurants have garnered attention, Kunkel makes sure they all keep half of their tables unreserved, a policy meant to accommodate locals who happen to walk in on any given night. This focus on local is important; Miami is exploding with world-class chefs from around the world, but Kunkel has epitomized the success of a local entrepreneur with the understanding of what people want and come back for. He’s earned their loyalty.
You’ve heard versions of Kunkel’s story before, the one about the guy who starts as a dishwasher and ends up a restaurateur with 500 employees. But not everyone spends three and a half years in small villages in Southeast Asia studying the martial arts. And not every guy takes such an active role in the construction of his restaurants that he acts as his own general contractor—even manning a jackhammer—to get them built.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Kunkel. Before his recent successes, he used his savings, a second mortgage on his house, and all the money on his credit cards to open Taste Bakery Café, in South Beach. The risk backfired: Taste opened its doors two days after September 11, 2001, and then, Kunkel says, “It got pretty quiet.” Despite that setback, Kunkel went on to create the fast-casual concept Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, which Ruby Tuesday’s bought last year for $24 million. Kunkel says he wanted to be able to eat good Mexican food (or at least its American version) and few places were making it. “I’ve always built a restaurant selfishly, for myself and my friends,” he says.
The truth is that Kunkel’s restaurants betray his obsession with the details of every aspect of the business, from menu creation to interior design.
In the case of Khong River House, he and his team—which includes Executive Chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, former sous chef at South Beach’s Nobu and a native of northern Thailand—spent more than two months creating the menu, which features everything from tam bak hoong (spicy green papaya salad) to kha mu palow mann tow (slow-cooked whole pork leg) and a gin-centric cocktail menu that riffs off Thailand’s distinct array of spices. Complementing the menu, Khong’s décor, with its backdrop of reclaimed boat wood (imported from Southeast Asia) and pale brick, transports guests far from the retail bustle of Lincoln Road to the riverbanks of northern Thailand.
The harmony between cuisine and design is a 50 Eggs staple. The agency envisioned Yardbird as an epicurean ode to the comfort cooking of the American South—where Kunkel grew up— and everything from the restaurant’s fried chicken (Kunkel’s grandmother’s recipe) to the Mason jars cocktails come in stays true to that vision. “Yardbird needed to be authentic and cool without being themed,” says Kunkel.
The future includes opening restaurants outside of Florida and moving 50 Eggs into the former Sunshine Motel, a property in Miami’s historic MiMo district, by this coming February. The property will have an experimental food space called Test Kitchen that will be a place for chefs who want to toy around with new recipes, learn about the industry from Kunkel’s team, and share their own wisdom with one another. “For me to keep those small restaurants in business helps further the culinary and dining scene in Miami,” Kunkel says. “Ultimately, I think it’s just a good-karma, wonderful thing to do for our industry as a whole.”
At 42 years old, Kunkel is determined to keep expanding his business. “I’m really proud of the restaurants we’ve created, and I hope that the next year is going to be as exciting as the last. No doubt it will be at the rate we’re going,” he laughs. Swine Southern Table & Bar, 2415 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables, 786-360-6433. Yardbird, 1600 Lenox Ave., Miami Beach, 305-538- 5220. Khong River House, 1661 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach, 305-763-8147
photography by david cabrera