A framed photograph of owner Nick Yee’s dogs, Nori, left, and Rozu, highlights the wall next to the bar at Kuno. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Let’s start with a confession: I love Peranakan cuisine so much, I binge-watched 8 straight hours of the Malaysian showdown program, “Best. Ever.” on a flight back to Maine a few months ago. The format of each episode is simple: C-list celebrities offer their favorite version of a particular Peranakan dish (usually from restaurants and food stalls in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore), then the whip-smart host, Daphne Iking, tastes them and selects a winner.

By the time I disembarked at the Jetport, brainwashed by images of laksas and sago puddings, I already had dinner plans for the following day. My destination: Kuno.

If you recognize that name but aren’t sure where the restaurant is, that’s probably because you associate Kuno with chef/owner Nick Yee’s enormously popular Southeast Asian food truck. If you’ve been to a Portland brewery or one of the city’s two promenades at lunchtime over the past few years, you’ve probably seen it.

You’ve also probably spotted Yee and his signature, chili-mayonnaise-slathered fried-chicken sandwich served on a Norimoto Bakery brioche bun ($15). Both have been a fixture on the area’s mobile kitchen circuit since Yee purchased the Thainy Boda van from his former employers at Boda in 2019.

While he still operates the food truck, Yee also launched a brick-and-mortar business on Cumberland Avenue in late-2020 — by any measure, a rough time to open a restaurant. But Yee has persisted. First through renovations of a workaday space that once housed a convenience store, then through several iterations of COVID dining restrictions, then staffing shortages that forced the restaurant into a takeout-only model until last spring. Now that things have settled a bit, it feels like Kuno’s real debut is happening right now.

So far, it’s going pretty well.


The dining room at Kuno, on Cumberland Avenue in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The restaurant’s layout is a little higgledy-piggledy, with an inviting, artistically wood-paneled dining room on one side of the building and a chic, dimly lit bar area near its entrance. Both spaces are pleasant and comfortable, but because of the awkward placement of the kitchen and the building’s stairwell, they ultimately read as disjointed. Creating some kind of visual link between the two should be a priority, so customers can see that the restaurant is actually fairly spacious.

On the food front, Yee’s Thai-inspired dishes continue to impress, especially his riff on larb prepared with ground chicken, green beans and shallots stir-fried together with handfuls of aromatic Thai basil ($15). Pad thais are also strong, especially the chive-forward version with shrimp ($16.60). Both dishes are a great match for one of Kuno’s range of tart-and-sweet cocktails like tart-and-herbal, Cynar-and-tequila-based No. 3 ($14), or an ultra-punchy, not-too-sweet Thai basil lemonade ($4.75).

With that success in mind, what I have to say next might surprise you. I’d love to see Yee move away from Thai classics, toward a full menu of Peranakan dishes. This doesn’t mean get rid of all the Thai – on the contrary, Peranakan cuisine already represents a melting-pot of Southeast Asian cooking, including Thai, Indonesian, Indian and (perhaps most importantly) Hokkien-Chinese-inflected Malay foodways.

Kuno’s Nasi goreng, a fried rice dish with origins in Indonesia, with vegetables and chicken, topped with a fried egg and cucumber. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

But I think a small course-adjustment is in order for Kuno because every Portlander I’ve asked has told me they think the restaurant is another Thai spot in a city that is already well-served on that front. And with one fluke of an exception (an unusually underseasoned nasi goreng – sweet-soy-sauce and shallot-based fried rice with chicken – with an overcooked fried egg, $15.50, that I tasted a few weeks ago), Kuno’s umami-forward, Peranakan dishes are the restaurant’s best.

Start with Brussels sprouts, deep-fried until crisp outside and meltingly tender inside, then tossed in a lively green-tomato chili sambal sauce ($9). Brussels were everywhere five years ago and seem have fallen out of favor with diners, but Kuno’s version is a reminder of why they deserve a comeback tour.

Speaking of trendy dishes, Yee offers his take on the ubiquitous Basque burnt cheesecake as Kuno’s lone dessert option ($8), infusing dense custard with leprechaun-green pandan leaves. Yee’s version is actually more like a traditional Italian cheesecake, in that it foregoes the messy sides and heavy blistering. This misreading (intentional or not) works out to the dessert’s benefit, giving pandan’s subtle nuttiness the well-deserved, starring role.


“Wow. This guy should open a bakery,” my dinner guest said between bites of dessert. My reply, mumbled between my own greedy bites: “Mmmph…um…yeah! Next time, we’re ordering two slices.”

And I knew another visit to Kuno was definitely in my future the instant I tasted Yee’s char kway teow ($16), an iconic Penang street food dish made by stir-frying discs of savory Chinese pork sausage (lap cheong), plump shrimp, garlic chives and wide rice noodles in a wok fired so hot, it emits the elusive, smoky “wok hei” flavor that a regular home cook can’t replicate.

In Malaysia and Singapore, you’ll often find cockles and sliced fish cakes in this dish, but to me, seafood flavors other than shrimp distract from the layered sticky caramel, salt and industrial-grade umami of char kway teow. Yee’s has no cockles, no fish cake, and an extra-generous glug of chili sambal to help offset the saltiness of the sauce.

Maybe the biggest compliment I can give to Yee is that he knows how to manage his oil. If you think that’s faint praise, think about how difficult it must be to keep garlic, egg and flat noodles drenched in oyster sauce and kecap manis (a dark, sweet soy sauce the texture of molasses) from sticking to the surface of a 700 degree F wok. In such extreme circumstances, knowing how to thread the needle between well-lubricated and greasy is the hallmark of a chef who knows his stuff. If I had to choose a competitor for a Best. Ever. char kway teow showdown, it would be Nick Yee, no doubt about it.

Kuno’s char kway teow, stir-fry flat rice noodles with shrimp, Chinese sausage, chives, bean sprouts, egg, chili samba and soy. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

RATING: ***1/2
WHERE: 166 Cumberland Ave., Portland. 207-747-5090 kunomaine.com
SERVING: Tuesday to Sunday, 5 – 11 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $9-11, Mains: $14-16.60
NOISE LEVEL: ATM vestibule
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Wine, beer, cocktails
BOTTOM LINE: You may already be familiar with Kuno’s food truck and iconic fried-chicken sandwich, but it’s time to get acquainted with chef/owner Nick Yee’s Cumberland Ave. restaurant. Open in fits and starts since the first year of the pandemic, the brick-and-mortar Kuno is finally fully prepared to welcome you to dine in (or, if you must, order takeout). A few Thai dishes – a legacy of Yee’s time cooking at Boda – remain on the menu, but the restaurant’s true highlights are its Peranakan/Malaysian dishes. Highlighting umami-forward flavors, spice and smoke, and noodles galore, Kuno’s menu is small and charming, just like the restaurant itself. No pretense, and no preamble here: Just tuck into Brussels sprouts seasoned with green-tomato sambal, golden pan-fried pork dumplings ($9.60), and terrific char kway teow – a saucy, smoky rice noodle dish suffused with wok hei. Grab a Thai basil lemonade or a cocktail at the full bar, and don’t skip a slice (or two) of the pandan-scented Basque cheesecake for dessert.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.