Living in Vancouver, there are a plethora of fantastic Asian dining options like Chinese, Japanese and Korean, but we’re at a loss when we’re craving Thai food. Portland is one of our favourite cities on the West Coast – we’ll take any excuse to make the six hour drive and a great bowl of curry is incentive enough. We had already heard lots of good things about chef and proprietor Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok before we visited since it has received tons of positive press including recently being selected by Bon Apétit magazine’s as one of the 20 most important restaurants in America, as well as receiving ink in the New York Times. Ricker won a coveted James Beard Award in 2011 for Best Chef in the Northwest and he has been touted in the media as an American ambassador for Thai cuisine. After visiting Pok Pok, it’s easy to see why – although the setting is decidedly hipster, the food is not. As his flavourful dishes attest, Ricker has stayed true to the roots of the dishes he prepares eschewing significant concessions with his menu to accommodate Western palettes.
On our last trip to Portland, we made our way to Pok Pok in eager anticipation and despite the hype it did not disappoint. We found it nestled in what looked like a sleepy residential neighbourhood; in fact, the restaurant is located in a converted wood-frame house with festive, casual outdoor seating as well as a bunker-like cozy indoor space. Ricker’s menu is comprised of the foods and flavours he enjoyed in the restaurants, homes and streets of Southeast Asia (primarily the North and Northeast of Thailand) while researching the cuisine he serves. The Papaya Pok Pok is a green papaya salad with quite a spicy kick – flavoured with lime, tamarind, fish sauce, garlic, palm sugar, dried shrimp and the bold heat of Thai chili, it is a crunchy, refreshing and bright mix of flavours that is salty, hot and gently sweet all at once. The menu recommends that you order Sticky Rice to accompany this salad and it’s a good thing we did since it acts to counteract some of its fire. Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings were a revelation – these aren’t the sad wings served up at sports bars across North America. These large and meaty wings are seasoned with a multitude of flavours including palm sugar and fish sauce then deep-fried to create a sticky, savoury and absolutely moreish dish. We almost ordered a second helping. The night of our visit, we opted for one of their specials: fresh prawns in a deeply flavourful, yellow curry. The tender prawns, cooked with their shells and heads on, are tossed in the thick, rich sauce threaded with green onions. For our next visit, we’re already got our eye on the Neua Naam Tok, described as a spicy, flank steak ‘salad’ tossed with a fish sauce, lime and chili powder dressing. When the menu promises spice, it delivers so definitely order the sticky rice or Beer Lao they recommend with this dish to temper your palette.
There are lots of Asian-inspired cocktails like a Tamarind Whiskey Sour and the Umeshu Cooler made with Japanese Ume plum wine and soda as well as beer to wash down your delicious dinner. Our Southside cocktail, made with gin, mint syrup, lemon juice and a splash of soda was a balanced and refreshing concoction to kick off our meal. Ricker has expanded his empire to include Pok Pok Noi and Whiskey Soda Lounge, which we would definitely check out next time we’re in Portland based on our entirely enjoyable visit to Ricker’s original venture. And next time we’re on the East Coast, we can’t wait to try his NYC Pok Pok outpost.