The problem with most Thai food – in my modest experience at least – is that much of it is so homogenized in the West that most menus are made up of familiar clichés like Pad Thai (which to be pedantic is actually ‘Phat’ Thai), spring rolls (whose motley ingredients are dubious at best), pot stickers (just weird) and a rainbow of curries that will almost always consist of a red, yellow and green version (insert protein here).
And for most of the population who claim they are “Thai foodies”, this asinine comment most certainly points to the fact that they’ve probably never ventured into unchartered territory. Most have certainly never tried Kaeng Som Thaleh, which some may know as a tamarind-spiked sour curry. The spice level at almost all Thai restaurants across the U.S is always toned down from a tear-inducing one million on the Scoville scale to a pedestrian walk through a patch of bell peppers.
Now I’m no Thai food expert by any stretch but I am an unabashed and self-confessed Thai food snob. I was lucky enough to grow up in Australia, however, where there is a strong Thai population and a great appreciation for what ‘real’ Thai food is, whatever that means. For me, it’s the understanding, not only of the vast smorgasbord of ingredients that makes Thai cuisine so unique, but also the acute skill it takes to combine those ingredients with such dexterity, experience and with a soft touch, that brings out those sweet, sour, spicy and salty nuances for which Thai food is renowned.
Until recently when I dined at Pok Pok, the much lauded and James Beard winning restaurant in Portland, Oregon, the best Thai meal I’d ever had outside of the motherland was at the Lotus of Siam in the unlikely setting of a Las Vegas strip mall. Seriously, in Vegas. That place is phenomenal, with a list of Rieslings that might even have Robert Parker – wine guru incarnate – curious, but that’s another review entirely.
Andy Ricker, owner of Pok Pok (as well as Noi, Ping and Whiskey Soda Lounge in Portland and Pok Pok New York and the newly opened Phat Thai) has garnered international acclaim and a never ending monsoon of media coverage for being one of the greatest proponents of Thai food in the world (kudos must also be paid to Australia’s David Thompson of Nahm in London and Bangkok). This guy’s nahm jim game is tight. Water tight.
Pok Pok opened in 2005 in what was Ricker’s former residence (gotta love Portland’s liberal laws) and indeed on my recent visit, ten of us sat on what would have once been his front porch. Try pulling that shit in New York. Its earliest incarnation was essentially a take out scenario, the food dished out from his garage. The place is now decked out in all the simple gaudiness one might find in the humble and tiny family run operations in northern Thailand’s food hub, Chiang Mai. But as with those places in rural Thailand, it’s all about the food and being made to feel welcome and Ricker has nailed both at his flagship.
Ricker has his haters (this is America after all), and a quick look over several chat rooms might see him criticized for not being Thai, or that he’s that ‘white guy’ cooking Thai food, both of which are comments too preposterous to even give lip service to here. At day’s end, who gives a toss? The guy is cooking with soul, skill and passion (and twenty years of experience here and in Thailand, for the record) and what more can you ask from a chef?
This is Thai food like I remember it in Thailand, simple yet with a deep complexity that far belies the myriad of ingredients in each dish and with a deft hand clearly at each wok and mortar. A recent visit was one of the best meals of my life, here, there or anywhere. Flavors were pure, clean and direct, hitting the palate in weird and unusual ways.
You just might have to wait an excruciating amount of time for that to transpire as the line at peak times can stretch into the hours. Lunch time, for the record, is a much easier proposition for those that want the same experience without the melee at the host stand. Whiskey Soda Bar, is, however, across the street so you can pass the time with some terrific cocktails in a lively scene.
Any meal here should – and usually does – begin with a serving of Ricker’s famous Ike’s Vietnamese chicken wings. Unless of course you’re one of those weird people I refer to as vegetarians. Essentially embalmed in fish sauce, they are as fine a specimen of poultry as you’re likely to find, well, anywhere. But how many to order? Six per serving, you do the math. Add a papaya salad, wet naps, frigid beer. Check, check, check.
It’s a mammoth menu, in fact rather confusing at first glance. And yes, there’s plenty for you vegetarians too. In fact many of the dishes can be made vegetarian and vegan friendly. Just ask. But on closer inspection, it’s balanced in its breadth and with useful and succinct explanations on each dish, coupled with poignant advice on whether to add some sticky rice here, some bread there (yes, bread). If that doesn’t help and you can’t decide (count on this happening), service here is extremely well informed with that casual and jovial professionalism that we love about Portland’s restaurants.
Another highlight that should kick start any meal here are Ricker’s drinking vinegars. They may sound weird, but they are utterly delicious and come in a kaleidoscope of flavors that on any given night might include cherry, tamarind, lychee, pineapple, celery, honey or apple, each one with a lively acidity that proves the perfect foil to temper the often numbing spiciness in his dishes. That or an icy beer, of which there are several esoteric options from Laos, Vietnam and deeper into the Orient. The cocktails should also not be dismissed.
Another welcome respite from the heat comes from a simple side dish of icy mustard greens, and by icy I mean that they’re literally cocooned under a bed of crushed ice with a crunch that sounds like delicious might sound and smacks of freshness. It’s simplicity as genius and works a charm, especially after a few mouthfuls of the wild boar collar covered with a dipping sauce of lime, garlic and green chilies and served with sticky rice that our server insists we eat with our hands. Get the boar collar.
Hoi Thawt – a crispy egg crepe typical of Bangkok’s night markets and also served across in Vietnam – is brimming with mussels, bean sprouts and garlic chives. It’s a little oily for my liking and I was expecting a softer crepe but it is a specialty of the house and should be tried at least once.
Ricker’s Laap, also known as Larb, is a very traditional dish of minced meat, toasted rice powder and herbs (among myriad other ingredients) native to the Isan region in Northern Thailand and Laos. Sadly, it is rarely seen in most American Thai restaurants and even then I suspect it’s mostly the adventurous eater dipping their feet into these unchartered waters. Which is a shame as it’s a treat and Ricker’s version is a doozy, brimming with minced duck and then lifted with blood and offal, house made fish sauce, lime, dried spices and crispy shallots.
Papaya salad is another mainstay that is typically seen (and ordered with abandon) in most Thai restaurants, yet few renditions have that long, slow and intense burn that seems muted on first taste but builds into something jarringly spicy, sending those chili addicts into a state of blissful delirium. Sit. Wait. Cry. Repeat. This version is textbook perfect, given crunch from peanuts and long beans and a salty depth from dried shrimp.
Like most Asian restaurants, you’ll really enjoy the experience more if you go in a group of 4-6, as you’ll sample more on this already substantial menu. Ensure at least one curry hits the table (the pork belly and shoulder is a standout), something from the charcoal grill section (order the ribs and roll up your sleeves). Order another beer at this stage. Throw in a noodle dish for good measure and if there’s salt baked fish on the menu, make this a priority. The flaky flesh is wrapped up in lettuce leaves and fresh herbs as they do at the famous La Vong restaurant in Hanoi, where the dish – known as Cha Ca La Vong – was born.
You know, I could describe each dish in fine detail here, but I’m not going to. A broader message prevails and something far more important to celebrate is the relentless mission that Andy Ricker is on, bringing a slice of Thailand – his Thailand – to Portland and indeed to America. And without any form of cliché or a need to cater to what people expect from Thai food. All the while enlightening new disciples and elevating this complex cuisine to a pedestal that it so deserves. Nicely played, chef. Nicely played indeed.
3226 SE Division Street, Portland, Oregon
Ph: +1 503 232 1387