Visiting Portland: Pok Pok

PORTLAND — Perhaps the bathroom is not the best place to begin a food review but what I found in the unisex restroom at Pok Pok made me laugh.

Hanging on the wall, among other articles and awards, is chef-owner Andy Ricker’s 2011 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in the Northwest.

I’m not sure what it says about Ricker that he would hang this major food award here but I’d like to think that it displays a disdain for the layers of formality found — deserved or not — in so many restaurants around the country.

Pok Pok Chef Andy Ricker’s James Beard Award. (Photos by Sarah Abruzzese)

We found the place to be a wonderful ramshackle spot with additions that speak to Ricker’s success. The place started purely as a to-go window and slowly Ricker expanded, taking over the entire building, adding covered dining areas to the front and then finally a bar across the street.

We’d arrived at the restaurant that serves authentic Thai cuisine after a really fun visit to The Meadow and were in the mood for an even greater culinary adventure. Luckily there was no wait for a table as they don’t take reservations for fewer than five people.

My friend Laura, who has been eating at Pok Pok for years, sent us with an order list and I’m incredibly glad she did. I would hate to have wasted our visit on mundane dishes or even items I could find at other Thai restaurants.

We ordered the perfect plates and came away with a complete understanding of why this restaurant is so special. (I was proud as we paid our check when the waitress told us we’d ordered like seasoned pros.)

We started with the spicy version of Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings ($12.50) that came to our table deep red and glistening with chili paste as well as the caramelized Phu Quoc fish sauce and garlic that the wings are slathered in after being deep fried. What a great way to start, the wings were crunchy, thick and meaty and tasted amazing — sweet and spicy. Did I mention they let the wings marinate overnight in a mixture of fish sauce and palm sugar?

This dish was created by the daytime cook, who brought the recipe from his native Vietnam.

My lips tingled pleasantly for hours after our meal and as I write about this, I am trying to figure out when I can next get to Portland to taste these again. (And thanks to a review in The New York Times, I was informed that I can also head to Brooklyn where Pok Pok has opened an outpost.  I encourage you to read the amazing review by Pete Wells. What incredible food writing — so vivid, so educational, so tasty.)

For our next dish we ordered the Muu Paa Kham Waan ($12.50), which is charcoal cooked spicy boar collar meat. The meat is marinated in black pepper, garlic and coriander root and then glazed with soy and sugar. After cooking it was slathered in this flavorful spicy chili, lime cilantro, orange and garlic sauce. Beside it we had chilled mustard greens atop crushed ice.  What I didn’t expect was the heavenly spicy taste of the tender boar meat and the soothing impact of the chilled mustard greens that erased the burn. With the meat we followed the waitress’s recommendation and ordered sticky rice ($1.50) that soaked up the sauce flavors and served to muffle the heat from the spices and acted as a great tool to pick up the meat and sauce.

Khao Soi Noodles with chicken

I loved that the menu described this amazing dish as “Northern Thai drinking food.”

The final dish was the Khao Soi Noodles ($12.50) that we ordered with chicken. This mild curry noodle soup was so warm and comforting and the crunchy noodles on top added just the right texture. The dish was made with Pok Pok’s secret curry paste and in-house pressed fresh coconut milk. The soup came with a plate of tasty little morsels that enabled us to customize the soup to our tastes. I found the soup to be so sweet and robust on its own that it wasn’t until there was just a bit at the bottom of the bowl that I experimented with the lime, cilantro, roasted chili paste, pickled mustard greens and shallots.

Ricker describes this Chiang Mai specialty as a typical one dish meal and I couldn’t agree more.

At the end of our meal, we’d left just one wing on our plates. That’s it. Our plates were clean. The waitress seemed slightly shocked that we left one of their famous wings and in retrospect I am sad that my stomach missed out on that last taste.

But now I have an excuse to go back.