Friday, May 3, 2013

Honeymoon: Whiskey Soda Lounge and Pok Pok, SE Portland OR

Friday May 3, SE Portland OR

After our scenic tour of SE looking for an open bar earlier where we could get a bottle of wine, we pretty much had the lay of the land and finding our B&B, The Clinton Street Guesthouse, was a breeze. It's one of many nicely updated and well cared for Craftsman-style cottages along Clinton Street, this one built in 1913. After we let ourselves in with the key code, we made our way to our second floor room and found that the room has a private balcony overlooking the back yard, which is complete with a large fig tree and a chicken coop with several Barred Rock chickens, which we heard from inside the room long before we ever saw them. We wouldn't meet our hosts, Jason and Ann, until the following morning.

Given our very close proximity to the universally acclaimed Thai restaurant Pok Pok, which like Lardo also started as a food cart, I wanted to go, not because everyone has to go here—I don't give a crap about that, but because Andy Ricker is doing food there that is unknown in this country and barely known in most of Thailand. This is an opportunity that a chef doesn't willingly give up and so we planned to walk there around dinner time.

Pok Pok is situated about a 10-minute walk in the absolutely perfect spring weather from where we were staying. During the walk to the restaurant along Clinton Street, we marveled at all the gardens in full bloom and at the swarms of bicyclists traveling along Clinton Street, designated a Bike Boulevard where bicycles have priority to motor vehicles. The poppies and the lilacs are all bursting forth in full bloom now along with dozens of other plants that being from the East Coast, I don't recognize.

When we arrived at Pok Pok at 6:45, we checked in and were told that we were looking at a 60-90 minute wait, which on a pretty night was not a horrible thing, but certainly not something that we are accustomed to. I generally wouldn't wait this long at a restaurant, but this was the one restaurant that I came to Portland to visit. We walked across the street to their bar, the Whiskey Soda Lounge, and commandeered a picnic table on the sidewalk of 32nd at Division and watched a veritable parade of people, mostly youngsters. Portland proper appears to be a young person's town. In fact, one young waitress told us, "This is where 30-year olds go to retire."

Punny Khing and I
Parked outside on the street beside a drinking establishment on a phenomenal spring day is rough duty, I know. But we suffered through it by ordering drinks, my favorite Asian lager, a Singha for me and one of the house specialty drinks, a Khing and I for Ann, and settling in to watch the people go by. Ann's cocktail was mekong (a sugar cane whisky much like rum), lime, ginger, and ginger syrup, the pun being that ginger in Thai is khing. I doubt a lot of people get that little pun, but I have cooked a ton of Thai food in my life, albeit southern Thai food and not the northern and Chiang Mai-style food served at Pok Pok.

My Favorite for Spicy Food
And what is the point of being at a drinking establishment at happy hour without having some drinking food? A dish on the menu caught my eye: Som Tam Thawt. I know enough to know that this is the traditional green papaya salad, but the last word—thawt—got my chef wheels spinning. That's one transliteration of the Thai word for deep-fried. Deep-fried green papaya salad?!?!! Gotta have it! And what a beautiful sight it was too. The papaya and long beans were battered very lightly and fried gently and the traditional dressing was served on the side. Too awesome!

Som Tam Thawt (Deep Fried Som Tam): How Freaking Awesome!
Sitting on the sidewalk, we have passed the hour mark and are now at an hour and fifteen-minute wait for Pok Pok. Ann, who has been suffering silently for weeks, can no longer suffer in silence and it is perfectly clear that she is feeling poorly and needs to go back to the B&B. I know this and I resign myself to asking for the check and passing up on the one restaurant that I came to Portland for. I would do this for her. Just at that moment, a server came up to us and asked us to cash out, that our table at Pok Pok was ready to go. Knowing how much I wanted to go, Ann put a brave face on it and we walked across the street and entered the bedlam that is Pok Pok on a Friday night. She would do that for me.

Because Ann wasn't feeling well, we ordered in a hurry and ate in a hurry. We ordered an appetizer and two main dishes to be delivered at the same time. Like everyone else in the place, we ordered a plate of Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, huge fried wings tossed in a gooey fish sauce caramel. I won't do that again. I liked the wings, but they weren't stellar. They were huge to be sure, but I have made lots better fish sauce caramels in my life. Chicken wing box now ticked off, I would explore the rest of the menu if I ever had the chance again. If you are visiting Portland and want the wings, go to Whiskey Soda Bar and grab a couple drinks and some wings. You won't have to wait on line.

Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings
The two main dishes we ordered were Da Chom's Laap Meuang, a Chiang Mai-style spicy minced pork dish, and Kaeng Hung Leh, a Chiang Mai-style pork belly and pork shoulder curry of Burmese origin. The Burmese curry powder tastes predominantly of coriander and I noted lots of long thin strips of ginger in the curry as well; it had a slight sourness that I attribute to tamarind though I could be wrong about that. The laap/larb was exquisitely superior to any other I have ever eaten in my life. I would have liked less oil in the dish, but the flavor was incredible. I have had lots of larbs and lots of curries from all over Asia, but nothing like these two dishes. And that's why I came to Pok Pok. Mission accomplished.

Da Chom's Laap Meuang

Kaeng Hung Leh
One thing about the Pok Pok business model confused me. Rice costs extra and the servers are constantly hawking rice, it seems as a ticket builder. The three kinds of rice are all around $2 a portion. I'm not looking to cheap out and I want rice with my meal, so ordering rice wasn't a big deal, but it was an issue for several tables that I saw. Why not build the rice into the price of the meal and save the servers the song and dance and having to deal with pissed off wannabe cheap customers?

If I lived in Portland, Pok Pok is where I would hang out on my days off. I would finagle my way into the kitchen and would happily pound chiles in the pok pok all day long just to see how the dishes are made and to start picking some brains about northern Thai cooking.

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