Pok Pok Portland
Many years back, my husband and I were watching “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” on The Food Network and saw an episode where Guy Fieri is in Portland, Oregon to visit a Thai restaurant that had become a local favorite for serving authentic Northern Thai cuisine. In the episode, Guy interviewed the restaurant’s owner who told the story of how he had gone to Thailand on a vacation that just kept getting extended and extended and how he basically fell in love with the country, the people and the food. So, he learned how to cook authentic Northern Thai cuisine and brought what he learned back to his hometown of Portland. In the episode, dishes are shown being cooked using traditional Thai methods and authentic Thai cookware, such as clay pots. I remember watching the episode and telling my husband that we had to remember this restaurant if we ever found ourselves in Portland. Fast forward 3 to 4 years, and my husband and I were watching CNN one night to see a new episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show, “Parts Unknown” where he’s visiting the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. It turns out that this entire episode features Anthony Bourdain being shown around all of the culinary delights of Chiang Mai by his personal tour guide, and fellow chef and friend. This chef friend also happens to be the owner of the same Thai restaurant in Portland that Guy Fieri visited all those years prior. Again, I told my husband that one day, we would have to visit this Thai restaurant.
Pok Pok, the brainchild of owner and Chef Andy Riker, named a James Beard award winner as the Best Chef: Northwest in 2011, has created a cult following for his famed restaurant located on SE Division Street in Portland, now known affectionately as Restaurant Row in Portland. Along with Pop Pok, Chef Riker owns a number of other restaurants and bars on Restaurant Row as well as in New York City and soon, Los Angeles. However, Pok Pok is the restaurant that started it all. After having been exposed to the cuisine of Northern Thailand, in and around the capital of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, Andy Riker decided he wanted to learn how to create such dishes and flavors and brought all of his knowledge back to Portland with him. Specifically, his aim was to focus on a specific type of cuisine which most of Pok Pok’s menu is based off of, called Isaan-syle food, with Isaan being a reference to certain ethnic minority found in the far northern reaches of Thailand. Chef Riker thinks that what distinguishes Pok Pok from any other Thai restaurant in Portland, or really anywhere, is his heavily influenced Isaan-styl food which really consists of ultra hot and spicy dishes eaten with sticky rice and made from techniques that are not found in Central Thai, Chinese-influenced cuisine which you find in most mainstream Thai restaurants. The name of the restaurant is an “onomatopoeia” as Chef Riker describes it for the sound that the mortar makes in a pestle when making green papaya salad, one of the most famous Thai dishes around.
The restaurant itself literally looks like it used to be a house, now transformed into a restaurant. The idea of Pok Pok was to bring Northern Thai street food to Portland, and one of my husband’s first comments when we arrived was that the setting of the restaurant really felt like you were dining on street food. Near the front entrance, if you can call it that as it really was the driveway of the house, was bar stool style seating over a long wooden bar table, much like you might experience if enjoying street food in Chiang Mai in a crowded night market. The house consisted of an upstairs dining room, a basement-type dining room and bar area, a garage area converted into a take-out window with some additional seating, the bar stool seating, and a makeshift heated tent area built over the driveway that contained more seating. It was within this heated tent area that consisted of 2 larger tables and 4 smaller tables that my husband and I were seated after about a 45 minute wait. Pok Pok, with its limited capacity doesn’t accept reservations and being there on a Friday night, getting a table was tough. It didn’t matter that the temps on this day after Christmas were in the 40s and the wait time for a table of 4 or larger was upwards of 2-3 hours, most people actually waited. We were lucky with a “short” 45 minute wait.
First off, and this is going to seem really odd, but Pok Pok had, hands down, the best water I’ve ever tasted at a restaurant. When you’re seated, your waiter brings you plastic cups and a pitcher full of water. Normally, I’m not a water drinker at restaurants, and literally I refilled my water cup a couple of times. I thought maybe I was crazy, but my husband and I both commented on how terrific the water was, and how tasty it was. It wasn’t until the end of the meal that someone at the next table over mentioned to his table that he loved the water as well and asked the waiter about the water and why it was so flavorful. I swear, I’ve never taken a picture of a water glass at a restaurant before, but I just couldn’t resist this time around as I wanted a way to remember how amazing this water was. The secret? The water is flavored with pandan leaves. The minute the waiter said that, I immediately was able to identify the slightly nutty and slightly sweet flavor in the water. I was hooked. Pandan leaves are from a plant commonly found in Southeast Asia. Pandan leaves can be found in many culinary uses in Southeast Asian cooking. I’m most familiar with the use of pandan leaves as flavoring in various Thai desserts, and I’ve seen it used as a wrapping for savory foods and desserts steamed in pandan leaves. However, I’ve never seen it used to flavor water before, and I’ve got to say, it was amazing. I’m going to have to try this myself at home when I get my hands on some pandan leaves. It was, bar none, the best water ever!
Enough with the talk of water, let’s get onto the real drinks. My husband ordered a drink called naam manao, which in English literally translates to lemon water. Essentially, the menu described the drink as fresh squeezed limeade, Thai style. You see, in Thai, the word for lemon or lime is the same: manao. And limes are much more prevalent in Thailand and used in cooking than lemons are. To me, fresh squeezed limeade, Thai style means a lot of lime and just a touch of sugar to balance it out a bit. After all, Thai cooking is all about the balance of flavors. For my husband, he described the drink as fizzy, sour and sweet. In other words, anything that tangy and “lemony” is a winner in his book. Simple, to the point, refreshing and absolutely delicious. He loved it.
For my drink, I ordered the kafae boraan yen. If I had to translate that, it would be ancient cold coffee, essentially old school Thai iced coffee. The menu described it as “sock brewed “ancient” Thai iced coffee with condensed milk and sugar. Made with Stumptown coffee.” Stumptown Coffee Roasters, of course being a Portland-based coffee roaster whose original shop is also located around Restaurant Row and says this is the store (and coffee) that started the “coffee revolution” in Portland, or I might say throughout the country as I see Stumptown Coffee featured in a bunch of up-and-coming restaurants, cafes, shops, etc. Ancient, or traditional, Thai iced coffee is made by steeping fresh ground coffee beans in a “sock”, much the way you’d steep tea. The fresh “steeped” coffee is then flavored with condensed milk, and in this case at Pok Pok sugar to sweeten it further, and chilled over ice to create traditional Thai iced coffee. Traditional Thai iced coffee has a sweeter flavor to it than regular Thai iced coffee and generally a better, fresh coffee flavor due to how the coffee is prepared. This kafae boraan yen was fantastic with a full-bodied and strong coffee flavor, completely offset with the sweet notes of the condensed milk. I could have drank the whole cup down in one gulp (I have a weakness for Thai iced coffee), and had to refrain from doing just that. I easily could have drank 4-5 cups of the kafae boraan yen. Good thing there was pandan leaf-flavored water for me to drink!
We started our meal with one of Pok Pok’s most famous dishes, and what they call their signature dish, Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings. Named after Ike, Pok Pok’s daytime chef who brought the recipe from Vietnam. The dish, which can also be requested to be cooked spicy, contains fresh whole natural chicken wings marinated in fish sauce and sugar. The wings are then deep-fried, tossed in caramelized Phu Quoc fish sauce and garlic and served with Vietnamese table salad. I didn’t see a single table the night we visit not order at least one, if not 2 or more, orders of these fish sauce wings. So, how could we not give them a try too? However, we went with the original wings as I am not a fan of spicy food (I know, I’m not truly Thai since I can’t handle spicy food). This was one of my husband’s biggest reservations about dining at Pok Pok, since they are known for Northern Thai cuisine and Northern Thai food is known as being extremely hot and spicy, all the kinds of food I don’t eat, my husband was concerned I’d be able to find anything to eat that I would like. Imagine that, a Thai person going to a Thai restaurant and not being able to find anything I could eat? It would only happen to me. These fish sauce wings were amazing. First off, they’re called wings, but you actually get much more than just the wing. And while 6 wings in an order might seem small, you’re actually getting a heck of a lot of food – much more than I anticipated. The wings are sticky, it’s the caramelized fish sauce that cause them to become almost like a glaze that sticks to your fingers. As fish sauce is readily used in Thai cuisine, my husband and I are quite familiar with it. What I wasn’t prepared for was how sweet fish sauce can become when it’s caramelized. The chicken meat is tender and moist, having been marinated in the fish sauce and sugar combination. Again, it’s a balance of flavors using the extremely salty fish sauce, balanced out by some sugar to cut the saltiness and add some sweetness. It’s like making a salt brine. The wings are deep-fried to a nice brown with a crisp skin and tender and moist meat. But it’s the tossing in the caramelized fish sauce and the garlic that really gives these wings their flavor. Our fingers were sticky from the caramelized fish sauce, but my husband and I cleaned off those wings. I can see now why they are a signature dish of the restaurant and why everyone orders them, they are finger licking good, literally.
The way the menu is set up at Pok Pok, dishes can be shared family style, or each person can order their own dish for their own personal meal. My husband and I decided that we would each pick a dish, but we would share our dishes family style. For my dish, I chose a special fish dish handwritten in chalk on a board inside our dining area. Plaa Neung Manao was the dish, which is literally translated as steamed lemon fish. The handwritten description for the dish was a dish made from a whole stripped bass steamed with lime, chilies, garlic and coriander leaf. Our waiter had warned us when we ordered the dish that this was literally a whole fish, head, tail and all, not just a filet of fish. I wasn’t surprised because that’s how you would find a fish dish in Thailand served. The bass was so much larger than I imagined it would be when it was brought to the table. I was so glad that we each only decided to order one dish as this fish was large enough to feed 4 people. The fish smelled wonderfully, you could smell the lime and the coriander and the fish looked delectable, full of succulent, flaky white meat. Unfortunately, much to my dismay, the fish was so incredibly spicy to my tongue. Don’t get me wrong, the taste of the dish with the broth of all of these spices and herbs and the amazingly tender fish meat was incredible, but the chilies, which were chopped and minced so tiny and rubbed all over the skin of the fish really did a number on me. You could taste the bite of the chili with each bite, so much so that I had to try to just eat the fish meat without the skin. It was just that side of too spicy to me. However, my husband, ever the trooper, and lover of spicy food, really liked the flavor of the fish. He thought it was a perfectly spiced, steamed fish with really wonderful meat on the very fat fish.
As a side dish to go with our fish dish and my husband chosen entrée, we ordered a serving of sticky rice. Sticky rice is a Northern Thai staple, replacing the common place steamed Jasmine rice you normally see accompany Thai food. Sticky rice literally sticks to your fingers, hence the name. With a flavor that is not as fluffy and sweet as Jasmine rice would be, sticky rice is the perfect accompaniment to many Northern Thai dishes which are eaten strictly with your fingers. Like those dishes, sticky rice is easily eaten using just your fingers. Often times, you take a couple of fingerfuls of sticky rice, and kind of use that a spoon or serving utensil for whatever food you’re eating, you dip the sticky rice into your bowl and use it to scoop out a serving of whatever food you’re eating, then you take the sticky rice and whatever food you’ve scooped up and plop it right into your mouth. No need for utensils whatsoever when you’re eating Northern Thai finger foods. Sticky rice has always been a favorite of mine and at Pok Pok they try to emulate how you’d find sticky rice served in Thailand. If you ordered sticky rice in Thailand, you’d get a small serving size of it served to you in a weaved bamboo basket. At Pok Pok, you get the same thing, an order of sticky rice brought out to the table in a faux (read: plastic) bamboo basket with a serving of sticky rice inside a plastic bag inside the basket. It’s a great accompanying rice dish to any food dish.
My husband’s choice for entrée at Pok Pok may have just lead him to the discovery of a new favorite dish to rival his love of traditional tom yum goong soup. What my husband ordered is pet pha lo. This is a soup dish commonly found in Thailand, though usually made with pork (or muu in Thai) rather than pet, which means duck in Thai. As described on the menu, it’s a Thai style stewed duck leg in 5 spice soy broth, with pickled mustard greens, stewed boiled duck egg, crispy garlic, and chile vinegar dipping sauce. According to Pok Pok, this is a Central Thai/Chinese speciality, which is a spot on description as the 5 spice soy broth is definitely a Chinese influenced flavor profile. But like any good Thai dish, the 5 spice soy broth is balanced in flavor with a bit of .acidity from the pickled mustard greens, and of course there is the chile vinegar dipping sauce for spice and heat. The dish is served as a soup in large bowl with a whole steamed duck leg. The idea with the dipping sauce is to take the meat off the duck leg and dip it into the chile vinegar dipping sauce for added flavor. The meat from the duck leg is already heavily flavored from the 5 spicy soy broth that it’s been stewing in. The broth at Pok Pok made the whole dish, it was so incredibly flavorful and wonderfully prepared. The addition of crispy garlic, which I hadn’t seen before was new and very welcome, especially since my husband and I are garlic lovers. The stewed duck egg was delicious as well, and my husband was nice enough to share half the egg with me. Of course, as the egg has been stewing, it has turned this deep, rich brown color from the soy broth and the flavors of the broth have imparted itself into the egg. My husband fell in love with this dish. He loved the duck meat and how tender the meat was since it had been stewing in the broth, it was so flavorful and completely fall off the bone. He also loved the flavor of the chile vinegar dipping sauce and how it added flavor and heat to the duck meat. For him, this was a perfect dish and he was so glad he chose this for his entrée.
Pok Pok was everything I had thought it would be. My husband and I were incredibly pleased with the food and our whole dining experience at Pok Pok. I had wanted to eat here for so long that there was the danger of it not living up to its reputation. But that wasn’t my experience at all. Yes, the restaurant is so hugely popular that they can quote 2+ hour wait times, and people still wait. But it really wasn’t that bad, especially if you go in expecting to have to wait a bit. The restaurant setting and atmosphere itself is so much more quaint than I had expected. You literally feel like you’re being welcomed into someone’s home, which you actually are. Everything actually feels so authentically Thai, my husband even said so. The small tables, the silverware, the serving dishes, the tablecloth on the tables, everything feels like you’re dining somewhere in Thailand at a small roadside mom and pop restaurant rather than in the middle of Portland, Oregon. And the food and drinks were fabulous. This was probably the most authentic Thai food I’ve ever been served outside of Thailand, and it had the whole package of food and atmosphere. I can see now why Pok Pok has had the cult following it has had as they really go out of their way to try to do it the right way. I’m so glad that after all these years, I finally was able to check this box off of my “need to eat at” list!