Jakob Polaco’s passion for Thai food started in high school in his hometown of Joplin, Mo.
Polaco and his father frequently stopped at Kinnaree Thai Cuisine, but Jakob wasn’t content to just order and eat, no matter how much he enjoyed the food. He wanted to see what was going on in the kitchen, how the ingredients came together for his favorite meals, how the woks worked.
“There were too many curious things and exotic things; I wanted to know what they were and how they were made,” he said.
But the 17-year-old was too shy to ask for a job, and the restaurant employed only family members. That’s when his father, a butcher, stepped in, convincing the owners to let them work a short shift together. Soon Jakob was on the payroll, peeling 40 pounds of shrimp and chopping 40 pounds of chicken a day.
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“I developed an appreciation for the food and for the culture, the language, the behavior, the etiquette,” he said.
He moved to Portland, Ore., to finish high school with plans to go to art school. But after an animation workshop — drawing something 500 times to get 30 seconds of a perfect product — he decided he wanted a job with a more immediate payoff. He switched to the Oregon Culinary Institute and started focusing on Thai cuisine, writing many of his research papers on Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok Thai restaurant in Portland.
After graduating, he moved to Kansas City, working at the American Restaurant, Port Fonda and The Rieger. He took different positions — food runner, bartender, bar back, dishwasher — specifically to prepare for owning a restaurant someday.
“It gives you a different respect and perspective for that job, teaches you from the ground up,” he said.
In December, he opened Aep (pronounced ape), naming it after a northern Thai method of slow-grilling food wrapped in banana leaves. Thomas restaurant, with rooftop deck and private dining room, had formerly operated in the space at 1815 W. 39th St., on 39th Street’s restaurant row.
Polaco, 27, wants to offer regional Thai cuisine, modern street food in a mix of old world and new world styles. He uses modern tools like the combi oven to steam, bake and roast, and a charcoal grill for skewered dishes, but the kitchen also has a mortar and pestle for grinding spice paste.
He rolled out his spring/summer menu March 1 and plans to roll out his fall/winter menu on Oct. 1. The rooftop deck also is now open for the season after a renovation.
Polaco recently spent nine days in mainland Myanmar and in western Thailand, in areas so remote he flew into a brand new airport in a single engine plane. He researched seeds and produce that could be grown locally by Cultivate Kansas City and New Roots for Refugees. He also visited Yangon’s bustling 19th Street District.
“It is a pretty conservative country and most restaurants say right on the menu there is no alcohol and they close pretty early,” he said. “But on 19th Street they stay outside and grill and people loosen up a little bit. It is very informal. You go up and point at what you want and they grill it. They stay up grilling all night, talking about Myanmar’s past and future, they communicate their life and their country.”
New menu items rolling out this month include the 19th Street Barbecue, a vegan take on his pub crawl in downtown Yangon with charcoal-grilled mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and vegetables served with a sweet chili sauce, cucumbers and jasmine rice. Polaco recommends having it with a beer.
Other new items include the Som Tum (central Thai green papaya salad with dried shrimp, tomato, long bean and peanut and tamarind chili dressing, served with sticky rice) and the Burmese Semolina Cake (a moist and springy cake of rice and semolina flour with palm sugar, raisins and poppy seeds) for dessert.
Burmese Curried Greens (local greens stewed in a mild red curry and served with chickpea chips) were inspired by a visit to Mawlamyine. Polaco asked a taxi driver to take him to the driver’s favorite restaurant, and Polaco then ordered every item set out in bowls on a table and even some still on the stovetop. His enthusiasm led the owners to make up a bowl of curried greens while he wrote down the ingredients, struggling a bit with the language.
His Moo Krob, a crispy pork belly with gravy, jasmine rice and stir-fried greens, is based on a dish he had at a third-generation Chinatown restaurant in Bangkok.
At an outside stall he tried another dish, promoted for medicinal purposes, but its sweet flavor inspired his Chinatown Tincture dessert with pearl sago, seasonal fruit and ginkgo milk.
Aep also has a new happy hour menu with small plates for $5 and $6 and drinks for $3 to $6. It is offered from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
New Aep bartender Laura Wagner will roll out her cocktail menu Monday with such items as Clarified Thai Milk Punch (Aviation American Gin, Thai tea, turmeric, kaffir lime leaf and betel nut), and Chua (Four Roses Bourbon, allspice dram, tamarind grenadine, lemon and aquafaba).
Polaco’s Joplin mentors have yet to visit his Kansas City restaurant.
“They like hearing all about it and my travels to Thailand. But they work seven days a week,” he said. “I talk to them often, at least once or twice a month, and they always give me advice. I don’t think I have the final answer. I’m still learning every day.”