I currently live in maybe the greatest U.S. city for Thai food, particularly northern Thai food. At least once every couple of weeks, Mark and I head to Hollywood to satisfy our craving for face-meltingly spicy curries, fermented meat sausages, noodle soups darkened with pig's blood and chock-full of offal, and plates of crispy crunchy nuggets of fatty pork. We almost always try a new place, and somehow, after two years of this, every place we hit is really good. Given this, it seems strange that we would travel to Portland and eat Thai food. But the buzz on Chef Andy Ricker's Pok Pok was too strong to ignore - Pok Pok Portland is doing so well that Chef Ricker just opened up a New York location.
So how does Portland’s Pok Pok stack up? Not too bad, actually. While authenticity-wise, Chef Ricker obviously can't compete with LA's best, his menu provides a nice gateway for newcomers to the aggressive flavors of northern Thai cuisine.
We arrive just after the restaurant opens at 11:30, and there’s already a wait time of about 20 minutes. Luckily, we’ve just scarfed a couple of Voodoo Donuts, so we don’t mind standing around for a bit. We take this opportunity to take in the ultra-casual, tiki-themed décor and loads of outdoor seating.
The drink menu is impressive. Whiskey sours with tamarind, Bloody Marys with Thai chilies, Korean yuzu-honey hot toddys. And you just dont find whiskey lists this deep at Asian eateries. Given the early hour, we stick to the 'no-proof' section, knocking back a few Thai Iced Teas (below) instead. Thirsty diners will also be pleased to find Stumptown pour-overs and a selection of Pok Pok's own brand of drinking vingegars.
Even though we aren’t starving, it’s hard not to order everything on the menu. The menu reads like our Thai food wish list. We start with the Kai Yaang, a charcoal rotisserie roasted natural game hen stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, pepper, and cilantro served with spicy sweet and sour and tamarind dipping sauces. Given the ingredient list, the flavors in the hen aren't quite as bold as expected, but the pleasantly crisp skin and amazingly juicy meat make up for it.
Any feelings we have about lack of flavoring in the prior dish is wiped away by our spicy order of Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings (we also got one order of please-please-not-spicy). The wings, marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep fried and tossed in caramelized Phu Quoc fish sauce and garlic, are salty, tangy, and most importantly, spicy. It's the kind of heat that slowly builds, making us glad the wings are served with a cooling salad of pickled carrots and daikon.
Given that we only order it to have something green on the table, we are surprised at how much we like the unique Yam Khai Dao, a crispy fried farm egg salad with Chinese celery, green-leaf lettuce, carrots, onions, garlic, Thai chilies and cilantro, with a lime, fish sauce, palm sugar dressing. It's tangy, salty and refreshing, and I especially love the crunchy bits of fried egg white.
A bit more traditional (as far as American Thai restaurants go) is the Muu Sateh, pork loin skewers marinated in coconut milk and turmeric, grilled over charcoal and served with peanut sauce, cucumber relish and grilled bread. The skewers are fine, if a little on the dry side, but with the rest of the great food heaped on the table, we quickly forget this dish exists.
More memorable is the Sii Khrong Muu Yann, a plate of Carlton Farms baby back ribs marinated in whisky, soy, honey, ginger and Thai spices, slow-roasted and served with two spicy dipping sauces. Literally finger-lickin' good, the sticky, tender, fatty meat is gone in an instant.
Finally, Chef Ricker does a really solid version of a Vietnamese staple Phat Si Ew, stir-frying fresh local wide rice noodles, bits of pork, Chinese broccoli, egg, and black soy sauce in a smoking hot wok. It's not an exciting dish, but it's executed really well.
The plates are scavenged for any remaining noodles and meat, bones are picked clean and fingers fight over the last bits of coconut rice. It is our final meal in Portland, and we've never been so thankful for the wet naps that are delivered along with our check. The next part of our trip will take us to the Oregon coast and we squeeze into the car, stomachs bursting with food. While the trophy for best Thai food I've ever had remains in LA, Portland's got a really good thing going with Pok Pok.
Hours: 11:30a-10:00p, 7 days a week