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Pok Pok – Portland, OR

Portland’s best Thai restaurant is owned by the most improbable Thai chef around: a white dude named Andy Ricker.

Chef Ricker’s relationship with Southeast Asian cooking stretches back to the mid-80s. Introduced to the local cuisine of Chang Mai while backpacking, he’s been smitten ever since. These days, he travels back to Thailand every year to learn more about Thai cuisine as well as bring back and implement new ideas in his restaurants.

Pok Pok started out in Ricker’s house as a take-out shack for Kai Yaang, a charcoal-roasted chicken rubbed with garlic and lemongrass. Word of mouth spread, lines started forming, and soon enough his entire home turned into a restaurant! It’s gotten so popular that Ricker’s opened up a Whiskey Soda Lounge across the street, which doubles as a waiting room.

Pok Pok’s menu proved surprisingly difficult for my sister and me to tackle — not to navigate but to settle on a reasonable order for two. There were only about 15 dishes, and we still had a hard time not ordering everything!

So did the restaurant live up to the hype?

The biggest shock was the Fish Sauce Wings: mediocre! The crispy, sticky skin and juicy meat suffered from a cloyingly sweet and heavy glaze. The fish sauce flavor was not potent enough, with garlic and sugar overwhelming everything. We hailed over our waiter and asked for some limes hoping the acidity would brighten the dish a bit.


A generous squirt of lime was perfect! It significantly helped in lightening up the glaze and bringing out the fish sauce flavor.

Despite our lime juice remedy, the wings were left untouched once our order of Khao Soi arrived. Egg noodles swimming in a large bowl of unctuous red curry coconut broth with a nest of fried noodles piled on top. We dumped in a dollop of extra curry paste, red onions, and pickles from the accompanying sideplate and dug in.
1. Khao Soi served
2. Squeezed some lime and dumped pickles, onions, and curry paste in for that umami kick!
3. Sister filled her small bowl; I ate out of and finished the rest of the noodles in the big bowl
4. So good I couldn’t stop eating till the bowl was spotless

Outside of a constant heavy slurping and occasional groans of pleasure, my sister and I didn’t say a single word for the next few minutes.

Unadulterated Pure Yumminess.

This Khao Soi was out of this world! Better than the best I’ve had in LA, and according to my sister, better than the Khao Soi she had in Chiang Mai! The soup was creamy and dense with a strong underlying raw chili heat that kept me coming back for more. Between mouthfuls of soup and crispy and soft noodles, I think I was in heaven… if heaven was in Chiang Mai.

I was still in a soup-noodle-induced stupor when the Cha Ca La Vong came to the table. This was Chef Ricker’s interpretation of Cha Ca Thang Long (Vietnamese Hanoi-Style Turmeric Fish with Dill).

Cha Ca Thang Long is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes EVER and for good reason! Buttery turmeric-laced catfish sitting on top of a bed of noodles along with a sprinkling of dill, mint, fried scallions, and peanuts, it embodies what I love most about Vietnamese food: sweet, salty, and sour flavors all at once! This dish was fantastic, and a joy to eat.

***
At this point, we were quite satisfied and just about ready to call it a night when my sister quipped, “are you full?”

“I mean… yeah… but… “

“How about we order the beef salad?”

“YES!!!!”

And so we placed a last-minute order for the beef salad, Laap Khua, along with a side order of cherry tomatoes with chili and fish sauce.

Earlier in the night, our server described the Laap Khua as visceral. And it really stuck with me. I love eating visceral foods; you can feel the soul and heart in the food, and it seems like the flavors go directly from your mouth to your heart—like umami on overdrive.

When the beef salad came, it almost seemed like a joke to even call it a “salad” (I also figured out “Laap Khua” literally means fried larb!). Beside a dainty stack of sliced cabbage, spinach, and herbs was a heaping pile of minced beef laap!

Cooked with savory stewed innards, herbs, and laap spice, I was hooked from the first bite! The innards permeated the dish with a deeeeeeep rich flavor as if the beef had been braised for days! It tasted beefier than the beefiest steak, and the laap spice, created from a mix of herbs and dried chilies, imparted a bold, in-your-face heat. The end result was an intensely rich and spicy beef dish, with an oily consistency that reminded me of the traditional Filipino dish, sisig. Eaten with sticky rice, bitter herbs, and the all-important tomatoes in fish sauce, Pok Pok’s Laap Khua was a fitting end to what was easily one of the most satisfying meals I’ve had in a long time.


Pok Pok Restaurant
3226 SE Division Street
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 232-1387

http://www.pokpokpdx.com/

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. tang & bolster #

    good call with the lime! i think the spicy version of the fish sauce wings helps to play down the sweetness of the regular version as well.

    November 27, 2010
  2. charlene #

    Am so glad you blog now. It’s like I get to enjoy the meal twice: once when eating it, and once reliving it through your words and amazing photos.

    Also, here’s Jarrett’s blog: http://jarrettwrisley.typepad.com/snacks/

    He’s my friend from SH who opened a resto in Bangkok serving regional Thai street food + excellent cocktails. His descriptions of opening a place of his own are pretty enthralling. He also has a series of posts at the Atlantic’s website. Lab lab!

    November 27, 2010
  3. Steph #

    I want POK POK! Mike – we must to Portland. I know the good food silence very well. I want that khao soi.

    November 28, 2010
  4. Mike: agreed with you there! actually found the recipe for Pok Pok’s fish wings online. I will try to make it at home and crank up the fish sauce, lower the sugar, and maybe add a bit of red wine vinegar for an acidic snap.

    http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/ikes-vietnamese-fish-sauce-wings-cocktails-2008

    Char: thanks for sharing that! Jarrett’s blog and Atlantic columns are very eye-opening. Can’t believe he fired his manager that he was singing praises about just a few weeks ago!

    Steph: Yes, another Portland trip is definitely in order! Good Food Silence– I like that. Blog name change perhaps? Haha

    November 29, 2010
  5. I’ve been making the wings for about a year now and have tweaked the recipe quite a bit and now think I’ve got a better wing. Definitely not as sticky/sweet as Pok Pok’s.

    November 30, 2010
  6. Nice man! Care to share your tweaked recipe?

    November 30, 2010
  7. Gerry #

    I hate you guys.

    November 30, 2010

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