The story: Pok Pok is the often-recommended Thai restaurant in Portland from Chef Andy Ricker, who is leading a one-man revolution of how Americans view Thai cuisine. In the years since opening his restaurant in an emerging neighborhood on Division Street, he has opened several restaurants (including Pok Poks in Brooklyn and Los Angeles), written a cookbook, gained a Michelin star, and won a James Beard Award.
Why I went: I have been trying to get to Pok Pok since I first started visiting Portland. On one trip, I was stopped by my own fears of it being over-hyped and hearing mixed reviews from some. And another, I was stopped just by the long waits that are sure to greet people trying to see if it really is that great. (The restaurant only takes reservations for large groups, and you end up sitting in an upstairs dining room in a house next door.)
Because people still tell me to try Pok Pok when they hear I’m planning a Portland trip, I decided to give it one more try during my recent Memorial Day holiday stay. I arrived 30 minutes before the restaurant opened at 11:30 a.m. and easily got a seat in the main dining room. Turns out, most Portlanders don’t eat early so the place was pretty open until 1 p.m. when the crowds arrived and the waitlist began to grow in typical Pok Pok fashion, even on a weekday.
The vibe: Like a bar in Bangkok, Pok Pok has a casual vibe. The outdoor seating is popular on a sunny day (but it was overcast when I arrived so I sat inside) while indoors have a cozy, almost tiki bar feel. In fact, the bar is a popular spot for solo diners to walk in and avoid the wait. Even though I was eating alone, however, I sat at a table because I planned to order several dishes with the idea of taking some home for dinner with my sister’s family.
The booze: A wide variety of tropical-themed specialty cocktails, and other drinks such as beer and drinking vinegars. Since I was there for lunch, I went with my favorite cha yen ($4.50), commonly known as Thai iced tea.
The menu: All the type can seem overwhelming, but I guess Ricker wanted to be thorough in explaining the dishes. There are noodles and rice dishes, and many of them are meant to be shared. Ricker gained a reputation for his food by making typical dishes that are served on Thai streets or bars, which mean they’re often salty and funky, the perfect balance to be washed down by a cold beer. And he’s not afraid of spicy specialties.
My server helped point out popular dishes such as the roast chicken, but I had to pass on the famous Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings (because they’re deep-fried). Still, I ordered five dishes, including one from the specials menu on the board: yam thua pluu ($12) was a delightful wingbean salad that had crunchy beans tossed with pork, prawns, peanuts and shallots in a chili-coconut dressing that was slightly spicy. Everything I tried was perfectly cooked, and while some dishes seemed OK like the da chom’s laap meuang ($17) or minced pork “salad,” others were mind-blowingly good like the simple but tasty muu paa kham waan ($15.50) or grilled wild boar collar meat rubbed with garlic, coriander root and black pepper.
My favorite dish: I enjoyed both the wingbean salad (the crunchiness of the bean was addictive) so you should order it whenever it’s on the specials menu and the wild boar collar for the simple tangy glaze served with the nicely cooked collar meat sliced thinly when served. These dishes really opened my eyes to Thai cuisine, showing an aggressiveness in flavor that was more than the typical overuse of soy sauce or fish sauce found in most Thai restaurants in America.
The last bite: Call me a believer, but I now see what all the fuss is about. Of course, your meal depends on how you order (because like I said, some dishes can be pretty regular), but what was exciting is the uniqueness of offerings you typically won’t see on Thai menus in the United States. (You won’t find Pad Thai, for example, on Pok Pok’s menu.) While the wait can seem a bit hyped, once you get in and dine, the experience can be revelatory.
The ratings: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Pok Pok (the original), 3226 SE Division St., Portland. PH: 503.232.1387. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations only available for parties of 6 or more (dining in its upstairs room in a house next door). Major credit cards accepted. pokpokpdx.com
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