Pok Pok Perfection – Take 2!

Pok Pok

En route to an important meeting, I stopped in at Pok Pok, the Portland, OR restaurant I fell in love with last year.  Since my first visit and last post, owner and chef Andy Ricker has risen among the ranks in the chef world.  He’s widely recognized as a champion of authentic Thai food and won the James Beard award for best Northwest Chef 2011.  Well deserved, but none-the-less no small feat for a restaurant that started as a living room endeavor. 

Andy Ricker

When I last visited I was blown away by the authenticity, explosions of flavor, and scope of options – drinking vinegars and whiskey flights to crispy broken crepes (just like you’ll find in Thailand at street vendor carts).  In fact, I was so enamoured with the experience I wrote to Andy asking for advice on my upcoming trip to Thailand.  I will forever be grateful for the direction he gave me…He sent me to Baanrai Yarmyin in Chaing Mai, where I had the best meal of my life – no joke! 

Ike's Vietnamese Wings

During this visit, I was plagued with a dreadful cold and jet lag but I knew Ike’s Vietnamese Wings and a steaming bowl of Khao Soi Kai would perk me up.  Ike’s wings did not disappoint – they were as outstanding as I had remembered.  Tangy, carmelized and crunchy yet moist inside.  If you go, be sure to order them spicy and bring tissues.  The Khao Soi Kai (a traditional Chaing Mai, Thailand noodle curry soup) was not quite spicy enough, but wonderful with it’s gentle curry flavor and stewed chicken.

Khao Soi Kai

Pok Pok is good enough to make me want to move to Portland!  Run, don’t walk…get here quick!

http://www.pokpokpdx.com/

Pok Pok Perfection

What started out as a Portland, Oregon area Thai food shack is now a slice of heaven I can’t stop thinking about.  Pok Pok, named for the sound a mortar and pestle make, is the best Thai restaurant in the US.  Bold statement, I know….I realize I haven’t exactly eaten at every Thai spot and you may think I’m crazy since you can’t get Phad Thai here.  But read on, I promise I’m right and should you try it out yourself you’ll also be a hooked addict.

Andy Ricker, painter, backpacker, musician, and chef extraordinaire started Pok Pok in his house.  It became so popular he opened more rooms, added picnic tables for seating, and opened The Whiskey Lounge in his basement for the long lines of people waiting (can you say brilliant!). 

According to his website, they “serve food found at pubs, restaurants, homes and the streets of Southeast Asia…”We do not make “fusion” food here; everything has been researched, eaten, and/or prepared in the country of it’s origin prior to being put on the Pok Pok menu… We do not serve staples like Phat Thai or Penang Curry, but the food we do serve is very accessible to most people. ”  A bold  idea in a country full of palate challenged people. 

We had had a bit to drink before we arrived (and I was exhausted from lack of sleep and jet lag), so I was deflated when we were told we’d have a 45 minute wait.  UNTIL they sent us to wait at the Whiskey Lounge (which is now across the street from the restaurant, not in the basement). 

Inside Whiskey

Whiskey Menu

When you enter the Whiskey Lounge, you are transported to a funky, red lantern, bar with an underground vibe.  I shared a whiskey flight with my friend Ed, which we (he) thoroughly enjoyed!  I also had a bubble beer (called bia wun), which is nearly frozen, slushy style.  I can only imagine how good it would be on a hot summer day! When the bartender told us our table was ready we stumbled across the way. A small, intimate, dark but lively place, we had a great table in the corner where we could see all the action.

Pok Pok Smorgasbord

We had no clue what amazing things were in store for us.  They serve family style so we ordered an assortment, of which a few were:

Northern Thai Pork Belly - Kaeng Hung Thaleh

The Kaeng Hung Leh (only $12 for a big bowl) is a Northern Thai sweet pork belly curry with ginger, palm sugar, turmeric, tamarind, Burmese curry powder, and pickled garlic (Chiang Mai classic with Burmese origins).  The dish is rich, spicy, and fragrant.  It was the first thing I tried and I nearly melted into my seat.  There is a slight hint of curry, but also developed flavors of a meaty stew, a bit of spice, and pork as tender as your granny’s Sunday pot roast. What a way to start a meal.

 

Ike's Vietnamese Wings

Next were Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, also only $12 for a big plate (already half eaten in the pic above). They are chicken wings marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep fried, tossed in caramelized Phu Quoc fish sauce, and garlic and served with Vietnamese table salad. It is based on their daytime cook Ike’s recipe from his home in Vietnam and named one of the 10 best restaurant dishes in America 2007 by Food & Wine magazine.  I found the recipe online and it is at bottom of this posting.

Ike, will you marry me?  Seriously…?  Hands down, we agreed these were the best wings any of us had ever tasted. Perfectly carmelized, crunchy from frying, slightly sweet but also spicy (we ordered extra spicy) with succulent, moist chicken. This is what I have been dreaming about since our visit. Pure perfection.

Our third favorite was the Muu Paa Kham Waan (only $12 as well). This dish is boar collar meat (don’t be grossed out, boar is actually really good) rubbed with garlic, coriander root, and black pepper, glazed with soy and sugar, grilled over charcoal and served with chilled mustard greens and spicy chili/lime/garlic sauce. The menu says its a northern Thai drinking food. Basically, it was tender boar cut into small chunks with a spicy chili sauce on top. The spice was warm and grew to really hot a few minutes in, but it wasn’t so hot you couldn’t taste the developed, complex flavors of the boar and sauce. When it gets to be a little too warm, you munch on a mustard leaf, which has been covered in shaved ice. The coldness and slight bitter nature of the greens are truly an antidote. Our friend Jacob would’ve eaten the whole thing if we didn’t dive in for more!

Even their water was special.  Eventually I found out it is it flavored with Pandanus leaf, as is done often in Northern Thailand, which gives it a toasted rice/vanilla/grassy flavor.  There were four of us and we ate and drank until our hearts were content (plus a little more maybe).  Appetizer, drinks (lots of them), 5 entrees, dessert = $75.   What an absolute bargain.

Inside Pok Pok

I keep thinking about Pok Pok, wishing I were there to enjoy it again and wondering if it is a glimpse of the amazingly wonderful food I’ll find when I’m in Thailand in a few weeks. In fact, I’m now going to change my itinerary to incorporate Chiang Mai just to find food like this….All in all, this is a place, an institution, a gastric temple that should be celebrated!

DETAILS = Pok Pok 3226 SE Division St, Portland, 503-232-1387, www.pokpokpdx.com; Whiskey Soda Lounge, 3131 SE Division St, Portland, 603-232-0102

Some of Andy’s recipes were published by Food & Wine and can be found here:  http://www.foodandwine.com/chefs/andy-ricker

Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings  

SERVINGS: 6

Ingredients

  1. 1/2 cup Asian fish sauce
  2. 1/2 cup superfine sugar
  3. 4 garlic cloves, 2 crushed and 2 minced
  4. 3 pounds chicken wings, split at the drumettes
  5. 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying
  6. 1 cup cornstarch
  7. 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
  8. 1 tablespoon chopped mint

Directions

  1. In a bowl, whisk the fish sauce, sugar and crushed garlic. Add the wings and toss to coat. Refrigerate for 3 hours, tossing the wings occasionally.
  2. Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a small skillet. Add the minced garlic; cook over moderate heat until golden, 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
  3. In a large pot, heat 2 inches of oil to 350°. Pat the wings dry on paper towels; reserve the marinade. Put the cornstarch in a shallow bowl, add the wings and turn to coat. Fry the wings in batches until golden and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels and transfer to a bowl.
  4. In a small saucepan, simmer the marinade over moderately high heat until syrupy, 5 minutes. Strain over the wings and toss. Top with the cilantro, mint and fried garlic and serve.

Williamette Valley and Work – Guess Which I Like Better

Today I hosted a LOOONG meeting at the Avalon Hotel and Spa.  As a reward after we were finally done, we hired a driver take us to Carlton to taste Williamette Valley wines…Our very own Pinot tour! The driver cost about $75 each way, which seems pretty reasonable given it took about an hour to get there and we were in a comfortable van that fit our whole crew.

Cana's Feast Winery

 

We had flights at the Carlton Winemaker Studio (the best was the 2008 Wahle – pronounced ‘wall’) and Cana’s Feast Winery, which are right next to each other.  Cana’s steward, Jason, was very knowledgeable as well as the most friendly person we encountered. They also have a restaurant that overlooks a mountainous landscape that I imagine is wonderous during any season other than winter.  750 W Lincoln St, http://www.canasfeastwinery.com, 503-852-0002

891 N Scott St, http://www.winemakers studio.com, 503-862-6100

Cool Fence in Downtown Carlton

We had one wine that stood out at Ken Wright Cellars, which required a bit of a walk to Main Street, downtown. I am no sommelier, but the 2009 Pinot Blanc was wonderful – fruit forward, creamy, finished dry. It would have been great with Thai food (my next post is all about Thai, so stay tuned!). It was so good I bought a case and had it shipped home. http://www.kenwrightcellars.com

Inside the Horse Radish

By now, we had quite a bit to drink and not much food so we stopped at The Horseradish. I hope to get back here one day…The atmosphere was warm, cozy, sophisticated but not pretentious, and simply a spot you know you’ll have fun. They also had an impressive array of cheeses. We opted for the large cheese plate and another flight of wine (lushes that we are). The best of the wine was a syrah…I wish I had a bottle of it! The cheese plate was served with a balsamic and fig sauce that was amazing as well as horseradish. For cheese, we opted for:

Horse Radish Ravenous

-Camembert, Mt. Townsend Creamery, Washington

-Humboldt Fog (always good)

-Ossau Iraty, France

-Snow Goat Triple Cream Brie, Quebec (Goat and Cow and my fav)

-Charcuterie – Sweet Coppa

-Our favorite wine here was the Dominio IV 2006 Syrah – SUPERB!

211 N Main St, http://www.thehorseradish.com, 503-852-6656

All in all, I can’t wait to come back to the valley sometime when the weather is a bit warmer, the fog clears so you can see mountains from clear to the coast, and all the tasting rooms are open (some close during the off season).

Portland Food Forage

This week I’m on a whirlwind tour through Portland and Seattle.  I love flying west because when you land you have much of the day left. We took advantage of the afternoon by stopping at as many food trucks as possible. Portland has led the trend for mobile gourmet and I am so grateful! Throughout the city, not just downtown, you’ll find extraordinary food out of these decorated tin can meals on wheels.  Since we are without a car (which is totally doable here, with the light rail and street cars available) and short on time, we stuck to downtown. We started our journey at SW Alder and 9th where there is an entire block of trucks.

Our first stop was at the People’s Pig for a porchetta sandwich. It was wonderful, with moist, thick chunks of pork (and an occasional crunchy crackling), slightly bitter arugula, crunchy baguette, and generously squeezed lemon juice on top to make it ever so slightly tangy.  I could seriously eat this every day.  Yet another case to add to my theory that pork is the most amazing food ever.  www.peoplespig.com

Just down from the Pig, we found James Crawford’s Mano Malo. His tag line is bad monkey, good tapas, which I think is amusing. We got the croquettes and estafado (serrano ham, chorizo, fava bean stew). Huddled around the top of a newspaper box in the rain, we devoured our goodies. One of our group of four foodies later declared the croquettes the best food of the day. Definitely check them out! www.monomalotapas.com

Addy


Addy's Menu

 Among our stops were a few notables. Addy’s is inspired. Her fun decor, savory and sweet menu, and utterly delightful personality made for a fortunate stop. We all shared the duck confit sandwich that was a great balance of salty and sweet with cranberry relish and cabbage. It made me think of what Thanksgiving meals should be….Succulent duck confit instead of dry turkey, soft and crunchy bread instead of frozen yeast rolls, and real cranberries rather than the gelatinous stuff that never easily slides out of the can. We also had the baguette warmed with dark chocolate, sea salt, and olive oil. We nearly wore it all over us as the chocolate seeped out of the ends. Although my group gave mixed reviews, I loved it, the mix of salty and sweet is one of my favs. www.addyssandwichbar.com

Nong's Food Truck

Our last truck stop was Nong’s Khao Man Gai. Try to say that ten times fast! I didn’t know it, but I had saved the best for last. I’ve been on an Asian kick since my Hamura Saimin experience in Lihue. Nong, who hails from Bangkok, specializes in steamed chicken and rice wrapped, with a wicked good chili sauce that was just hot enough to make it zip but still soft enough to let you taste the depth of flavor.

To make it, she uses chicken broth with aromatic Thai herbs to flavor the rice and make the chicken ever so tender and moist. The dish is served with a sauce called pungeon. The chicken and rice would be good on their own, but the sauce rocks it off the charts. It is made from fermented soy bean puree mix with garlic, ginger, Thai chilies, vinegar and sugar. She also respects the traditional Thai style by serving it with a clear, light soup that balances the dish and warmed us on a rainy, chilly day. I’m heading to Thailand in February and can’t wait to try this dish there, too! Go visit Nong, she’s kicking some serious arse!

http://www.khaomangai.com/story.html

By this time, we were chilled and damp so we sought out Spella, a coffee shop I’d discovered during my last trip. They’ve moved to SW 5th and Alder. I had a really unique concoction of gelato with espresso poured over the top. It was nothing short of amazing. The espresso immediately gives you a zing and the bitter strength balances the sugary gelato. After a few minutes they meld into a slushy drink with bits of chocolate. It was the perfect post lunch coffee and dessert all in one.
 

One of our group wanted me to take them to VooDoo Doughnuts. If you haven’t been, it’s a hole in the wall, edgy spot that looks more like a hard-core grunge bar, with a line out the door. It definitely isn’t G rated, with donuts like Cock and Balls, Dirty Old Bastard, that you can’t help but giggle at. Their namesake, the Voodoo Doll is filled with raspberry jelly topped with chocolate frosting and a pretzel stake. My two favs are the Bacon Maple (maple frosting and bacon on top, blessed pork makes me smile again!) and Portland Cream (filled with Bavarian cream with chocolate on the top and two eyeballs). http://www.voodoo doughnuts.com

Although we had divided everything in fourths, Voodoo put us over the top so we schlepped to Powell Books (only the best bookstore in the US in my opinion).  I wish I didn’t have to fly home and worry about baggage.  I’d buy as much as I could carry!  Afterwards we were still way to full to commit to dinner, so we decided to share a few plates at Carafe. We tried the slow roasted Moroccan lamb and braised pork cheeks. Both were great and we were split on which was best. I love lamb, so that was my choice. Paired with a local pinot noir, it was a great way to end the day.  www.carafebistro.com

Thank you Portland for fostering such a cool, funky, yet sophisticated food scene.

PS – BTW the Williamette Valley, Seattle are coming this weekend and stay tuned to Thailand adventures in February!