Oakland’s Yimm puts the spotlight on Thai home-cooking

From left to right, Pete Thongsri, Aya Amornpan and Note Mansawataphaiboon, co-owners of Yimm, a new restaurant in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood. Photo: Alix Wall

Before opening Yimm in Rockridge, Aya Amornpan brought in a ringer straight from Bangkok to train chef Note Mansawataphaiboon (who is also her husband and business partner): her mother.

“My mom was a single mom, and she is the best cook,” Amornpan said. “She doesn’t cook by recipes, but would go to the market and see what was the freshest and get inspired from that. She came here before we opened, and because she is a home cook and not a restaurant chef, she taught my husband how to make all of her recipes, dish by dish.”

Those dishes are what’s on the “home cooking” section of the menu at the new Yimm in Rockridge. A few months ago it opened in the former Osmanthus space, near the corner of College and Claremont avenues.

This is the second restaurant for the couple; Imm Thai Street Food, their first, has been open on University Avenue for five years. That would have been enough for the couple, but their good friend Pete Thongsri had bar experience and wanted to partner with them on another project.


“For me, this one was just for fun,” Amornpan said. “But for Pete, he really wanted to open something here.”

Thongsri is an investor in several restaurants in Bangkok, and is part of a design group called Farmgroup. He knew both Amornpan and Mansawataphaiboon from before they were a couple, Amornpan since they were kids growing up in Bangkok and then later, when they both lived in Los Angeles.

“Pete plays an important role in that we don’t have the bar at Imm,” said Amornpan. “I told him when we get another restaurant, we’ll look for one with a full bar as that’s his specialty. We are good partners in that we have skills in different areas.”

While Imm has more of a street-food focus, Yimm has a special section on the menu devoted to home cooking.

Yimm’s full bar means they are able to offer cocktails with traditional Asian ingredients like tamarind, lychee and lemongrass, while Thongsri says they are easily able to provide wine-pairing suggestions with the food as well.

While Imm has more of a street-food focus, Yimm has a special section on the menu devoted to home cooking.

“We wanted to have another concept, we didn’t want to do exactly the same thing,” she said. She also likes the home cooking concept because she and her husband have always enjoyed entertaining. “We always invited friends to come over and we’d cook for them,” she said. “Our customers are like our friends, and the restaurant is like our kitchen.”

Amornpan is the manager of both the couple’s restaurants. She came to the Bay Area to study marketing through UC Berkeley’s extension program, and then she studied international business at Oakland’s Lincoln University. She also has cousins here, who own Plearn Thai Restaurant and Little Plearn Thai Kitchen, both in Berkeley.

Sweet Corn Salad at Yimm in Oakland.
Yimm’s Sweet Corn Salad is similar to Thai food standard, green papaya salad, but the corn adds a starchy sweet dimension that plays well with the acidic dressing. Photo: Alix Wall

“I worked at Little Plearn Thai Kitchen with my cousin for almost 10 years, until I felt ready to open my own place,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot support from them.”

Thongsri and Amornpan both said that while they are seeking inspiration from Bangkok, they fully intended to take advantage of being in California, both in sometimes using produce that isn’t so traditionally Thai, and especially in serving local wines.

“Some California white wines and Thai food can be a perfect fit,” Thongsri said.

Another thing the business partners agree on: that Bay Area diners are much savvier and knowledgeable about Thai food now; many of them have traveled to Thailand themselves and are looking for dishes beyond pad Thai (not that there’s anything wrong with that dish).

“People are now much more adventurous and want to try new things,” said Thongsri. Amornpan agreed, noting that many Thai restaurants stick to the tried and true dishes that Americans are familiar with. “They offer what Americans are used to and know, so they provide a taste which is often too sweet and not quite right. Of course, it depends on your preference but I don’t like too sweet. Here, they will experience interesting new flavors because they’ll try dishes they haven’t tried before.”

The Yimm owners are attempting to strike a balance of sticking to tradition while incorporating elements from their new home. For example, there’s Chinese broccoli. Amornpan says that there is a tendency among Thai restaurants in America to use regular broccoli because it’s what Americans know, even though they don’t use it in Thailand.

The Avocado Green Curry at Yimm in Rockridge.
The Avocado Green Curry. Photo: Alix Wall

Amornpan believes that even though Chinese broccoli has a more bitter taste, Bay Area diners will like it if they’re given the option. “If they try it, then they’ll like it,” she said. “I want to bring what we really eat in Thailand and consider authentic, to here.”

While the Sweet Corn Salad ($12) wasn’t on the home cooking menu, we decided to give it a try anyway. The salad isn’t much different than a green papaya salad, but with corn swapped in for the papaya. It makes for a completely different taste though, since the corn is much sweeter than the green papaya, and gives a different flavor profile in the acidic dressing.

On the home cooking menu, we tried the Avocado Green Curry ($15). The latter is an example of local ingredients replacing the more traditional ones, in this case, avocado standing in for the ubiquitous pumpkin. We found the creamy fruit works well in the pungent Thai curry sauce.

The Mee Cook ($12), which is vermicelli noodles with chicken breast, carrot, celery, shallot and garlic in a tamarind sauce, was Amornpan’s grandmother’s recipe and was one of her favorites as a child before she developed the palate for spicy food, she said.

merican Fried Rice at Yimm in Oakland.
American Fried Rice is based on a dish you’ll find at many Bangkok hotels. It’s a favorite for many who grew up in Thailand. Photo: Alix Wall

Both Amornpan and Thongsri were both enthusiastic about us trying the American Fried Rice ($15) which consisted of fried chicken wings, Thai sausages, a sunny-side-up egg and rice fried with ketchup, raisins and green peas. While ketchup is frequently used throughout Asia, Thongsri said this dish was first created to please tourist children from abroad with what they think Thai food might be (although other theories abound) and is often served in Bangkok hotels.

While the fried rice with ketchup and raisins didn’t speak to our palates, the chicken wings accompanying it were shatteringly crisp and delicious.

The mix of familiar and unfamiliar, traditional and California-influenced fare offers a range for many eaters, and judging by our visit, it’s likely Yimm will become a new favorite in the neighborhood.