In last night's entry, I wondered where I could ever get real, non-Americanized Thai food here in the States...turns out, it was much easier than I expected. Pok Pok Thai/Whiskey Soda Lounge won the Oregonian's Restaurant of the Year award a few months ago, and their mission is to bring authentic Thai street food to Portland. And tonight, I paid a visit.
It's perfect--exactly what Jeffrey Steingarten describes in his "Thailand" essay. There are very few noodle dishes on the menu, because those are actually more Chinese than Thai. You eat not with chopsticks (also Chinese) but with your fingers, or using a fork to push food onto a spoon. Steingarten makes a big deal of how the Thais blend their ingredients in a mortar and pestle, and that's what "pok pok" means--it's onomatopoetic!
I started out with the house limeade, and even that epitomized the mix of flavors that characterize genuine Thai food. It wasn't just a basic sugary-tart lime confection. There was salt in it as well, and that brought out the deeper flavors of the lime (as in a margarita).
Pok Pok made their reputation as a food cart serving perfectly roasted, juicy game hens. We shared half a hen, and it was very good--especially if you made sure to eat some of the lemongrass mixture that was rubbed into its cavity. If I lived in Southeast PDX, it might become my new comfort food. But aside from the lemongrass, it didn't really taste Asian or have that complexity of Thai flavors I was seeking. I was ready for something more complicated.
And that was the signature green papaya salad. I don't even know what green papayas are supposed to taste like (and dislike red-orange papayas when I've tried them) but what with the fish sauce, peanuts, lime, tamarind, tomatoes, and dried shrimp, it makes a delicious Thai dish, hitting the four-point "sweet-sour-salty-hot" flavor profile.
We also had two meat "salads," one of sliced flank steak, one of boar chunks; they had chili, lime, garlic, cilantro, and other flavors in common. One was nearly perfect; the other had mint in it, which I tend not to like--I usually think it overpowers everything else, and not in a good way. As a palate cleanser, the boar also came with "chilled mustard greens," and Pok Pok means that literally--the greens arrived on a plate below a heap of ice cubes!
We had this all with sticky rice, which you break off in chunks and eat with your fingers. I'm used to so-called sticky rice being wet and pasty; but this stuff was dry and clumped up nicely into cakes, with no messiness.
Now, I'm still going to appreciate inexpensive pad thai as a healthy, filling lunch, or massaman curry on a cold rainy day... but my culinary world has just been expanded.
Pok Pok Thai/Whiskey Soda Lounge is at 3226 SE Division St. See also the review at PDX Food and Drink, which also includes a Thai Food Primer covering many of the same points that Jeffrey Steingarten does.