UPDATE: Andy Ricker announced he will close this restaurant on May 8, 2016 as the numbers never really added up.
The story: James Beard Award-winning Chef/Owner Andy Ricker has revolutionized Thai cuisine in the Northwest (and now New York) through his extremely popular Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, which spawned a second location and a whisky lounge. Last year, he opened Sen Yai (which means “big noodles”) to serve up Thai noodles dishes like those he ate at street stands in Thailand.
Why I went: While in Portland for Feast Portland, I wanted to try a Ricker restaurant, but of course the crowds were crazy at his original Pok Pok with out-of-towners like me wanting a taste. But I had read about his noodle shop, and I thought it would be a nice casual spot when my sister and I were looking for lunch.
The vibe: Brightly colored prints sub for the neon of Bangkok, and Sen Yai attracts a mixed crowd but luckily not as packed as its older sibling. Since we were having beautiful weather in Portland, we decided to sit at the outdoor patio, beaming in yellow tones from the plastic table covering and umbrellas.
The menu: All kinds of noodles, with Ricker explaining how he discovered certain dishes (most popular for lunch in Thailand or had tried making this dish more than 50 times). While Sen Yai is known for the kuaytiaw naam, the popular Thai lunch soup noodle dishes, we felt it was too warm for soup noodles. So we ordered a couple of stir-fried noodle dishes and a rice dish.
The booze: Several Thai beer to choose from, including wine. There’s also some specialty cocktails like Tamarind Whisky Sour and Pok Pok Bloody Mary. I ended up trying one of the Thai beer called Beer Chang ($5.50).
My favorite dish: I’m also a fan of the lighter rice noodles (or rice vermicelli) and Sen Yai’s Phat Thai has that same texture. We ordered the regular Phat Thai Muu Sap ($11) made with ground pork with dried tofu, dried shrimp, egg, been sprouts and garlic chives. What made the dish was the accompanying chili sauce that added a lot of flavor and heat (but not super hot).
Insider tip: Sen Yai can adjust the heat by either not giving you any or giving you all (there’s no in-between). My sister asked for our dishes to be mild, but it really tasted like no heat. And the one dish (Kai/Muu Kaphrao Khai Dao), which is a minced meat dish with rice, could only come in one heat but it wasn’t that spicy. So my guess is you could probably try the heat and should be OK.
The last bite: Sen Yai introduces a lot of different Thai noodle and rice dishes to the American eating public, and while not strong in flavor, they’re satisfying dishes that often come without a very long wait.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Sen Yai, 3384 SE Division St., Portland, Ore. PH: 503.236.3573. Open weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; weekends, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. www.pokpoksenyai.com
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