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Khong River House, photo by David Cabrera

Photo by David Cabrera

Goong pao (grilled giant prawns) at Khong River House.

In a stunning turn of events, Miami is fast becoming a world-class food town. One restaurant’s story proves my point. Every February, the country’s best chefs, food experts, wine freaks and television personalities meet up in Miami for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. At the most recent festival, everyone was talking about Khong River House.

“We’ve introduced a food type that isn’t represented at all in South Florida,” says John Kunkel of the Southeast Asian fare served at Khong River House in Miami Beach. Kunkel is CEO of 50 Eggs Inc., the creative firm behind the restaurant. Kunkel, 41, kicked off his culinary career like many food professionals: washing dishes. Eventually, he’d held every position in the business. At 18, he headed to Thailand in pursuit of martial arts training. Kunkel didn’t return for three years. While living in the northern part of the country, he fell in love with the cuisine that would later inspire Khong River House. He also became inspired to build a thriving culinary empire in Southern Florida.

Kunkel’s first restaurant concept in Miami was Lime Fresh, a quick-service Mexican restaurant. Yardbird Southern Table & Bar was next, focusing on farm-fresh ingredients, classic Southern cooking, culture and hospitality. “People would tell me, ‘You’ll never be able to sell Southern fried food in South Beach,’ ” Kunkel says. Negativity seems to fuel his competitiveness and spur his projects to greater success. He sold Lime Fresh to Ruby Tuesday in 2012, and Yardbird wound up on Bon Appétit’s best new restaurants list of 2012.

Which brings us to Khong River House, unveiled in December 2012 with rustic Asian farmhouse décor and reimagined versions of Kunkel’s favorite Southeast Asian street foods: house-made noodles and dishes teeming with bold, pungent flavors such as sour pork, lemon grass and kefir lime leaves. Kunkel hired Chiang Rai-born executive chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, whose team features traditionally trained Western chefs and a few cooks from different areas of Southeast Asia.

“From our sous chefs to line cooks, everyone has a voice within the kitchen,” Kunkel explains. “We have a lot of really smart, talented people from a culinary perspective. We’ve made it an open forum of creativity.” That freedom helped create an exciting, bold menu. Kunkel is especially proud of their braised beef- and homemade meatball-laden boat noodles. “The recipe came from one of our sous chefs whose family runs a boat noodle stand in Korat,” he says. “You could close your eyes and be in Thailand when you order those noodles.”

Aiding in the escape element at Khong River House is Kunkel’s unprecedented access to authentic ingredients. He’s managed to connect with Thai farmers to get six types of Thai eggplants and traditional chilies to boot.

Kunkel and a handful of other chefs are turning Miami into a culinary destination. Says the restaurateur, whose latest eatery is Swine Southern Table & Bar, “There’s a whole different side of the beach. Local neighborhoods that crave quality chef-driven experiences that lack all the pretension.”

This is another reason why I adore Miami, and why I suspect its food scene will only get better. //

Zimmern is the James Beard Award-winning host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.

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