Pok Pok Portland via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

The original Pok Pok looks like it’s in a former house and can often attract large crowds to the no-reservations spot. I arrived just as it opened for lunch so it wasn’t packed.

PORTLAND, Ore.
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.

Pok Pok Portland via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

The indoor dining room before the crowds arrived.

Kung Op Wun Sen ($16.50) is a clay pot with wild caught gulf prawns with pork belly bits, served with bean thread noodles (or clear noodles). This is a Chinese influenced dish, and I loved the shrimp but hardly tasted the pork belly.

Kung Op Wun Sen ($16.50) is a clay pot with wild caught gulf prawns with pork belly bits, served with bean thread noodles (or clear noodles). This is a Chinese influenced dish, and I loved the shrimp but hardly tasted the pork belly.

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.

A view of the bar at Pok Pok

A view of the bar at Pok Pok

Thai Iced Tea via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Cha Yen ($4.50) or Thai iced tea

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.

wingbean salad at Pok Pok via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Yam Thua Pluu ($12) or wingbean salad from the daily specials menu

minced pork salad at Pok Pok via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Da Chom’s Laap Meuang ($17) or Northern Thai spicy hand-minced pork salad with aromatics, spices, herbs, cracklings and crispy fried shallots and garlic.

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.

Cha Ca La Vong at Pok Pok via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Cha Ca “La Vong” ($15.50) is a vermicelli rice noodle dish topped with catfish marinated in tumeric .

A closer look at the rice noodles in the Cha Ca. I loved the catfish but the noodles were a bit bland.

A closer look at the rice noodles in the Cha Ca. I loved the catfish but the noodles were a bit bland.

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.

boar collar meat at Pok Pok via Focus:Snap:Eat blog

Muu Paa Kham Waan ($15.50) or boar collar meat rubbed with garlic, coriander root and black pepper, glazed with soy and sugar, grilled and served with chilled mustard greens (which really helped tame the spiciness in the boar).

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

3-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

Pok Pok Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

One Response to Finally Getting a Taste at Portland’s Popular Pok Pok Thai Restaurant

  1. Carolyn Jung says:

    I love his food. I had the pleasure of going to his Ping, which used to be in Portland. And to his tiny cafe in LA’s Chinatown. It’s Thai food so unlike what you find at most places in the U.S. It has definite personality and distinctiveness.