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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pok Pok - Portland - Oregon

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After visiting Ramona and Klickitat Street, Darlene of Blazing Hot Wok and I went to the other side of town for lunch at Pok Pok.

Pok Pok, owned by Andy Ricker, has received a lot of coverage by bloggers and mainstream media since it opened several years ago. It was even named restaurant of the year by The Oregonian in 2007. Pok Pok used to be a take-away hut, which replaced a vegan sushi take-away, and is now a full-service restaurant.

Was it the novelty of a white guy cooking authentic Thai street food that lured people in? Or was the food actually that good?

Darlene and I sat in the outside area, which was covered with thick plastic tarp. It seemed like a good idea to dine outside on a sunny June day, but the tarp acted like an oven and it got way too warm.

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I got a Thai iced tea. Apparently the water with pandan leaf is one of the most frequently asked questions at the restaurant? It's just a leaf folks. Gives a subtle freshness to the water.

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We ordered the papaya salad, $9, with salted crab, $2.50. Ouch! It was good, but all I could think was I could get twice this portion for half the price. OK, not literally half price, but the very large-sized salty crab papaya salad at Noodle World - Alhambra is $7.50 and is substantially larger than the appetizer-sized plate here. I remembered a lot of online reviews mentioned how great this was, or how unusual the salty crab was, but ummm, that's just standard for SoCal? This dish is what Ricker named the restaurant after because of the "pok pok" sound of the mortar and pestle as the papaya is pounded with the ingredients.

Container of sticky rice in the back, $2.

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Kai yaang (Thai roasted game hen), $11. Tasted like roast game hen. Darlene was a little disappointed because she said in Thailand they use free-range chicken. But I remember reading somewhere that Ricker substitutes with the Cornish game hens because they're the closest approximation that he could find. The chicken tasted fine, except the skin wasn't crispy.

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We also ordered the khao man som tum (Thai papaya salad), without the black crab, and coconut rice with sweet shredded Carlton Farms pork, $9. The coconut rice was nicely scented and I liked the fried shallots on top.

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The food was good, but pretty average by SoCal standards. I guess I've become jaded because I just didn't see why people raaaaved about Pok Pok. Sure it was fine, but the plates were appetizer-sized and priced at $9 to $11 for most dishes.

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I've eaten at other Thai restaurants in Portland, but that was prior to blogging so I can't really compare since it's been so many years. I think Pok Pok's popularity is partly because of the food and partly because of the novelty of it being prepared by a white guy. Although, with the opening of other restaurants, it's not necessarily Ricker in the kitchen anymore. Nonetheless, I think he helped make eating "authentic" Thai food less intimidating to non-Asians. I wonder how many of those non-Asians are trying the other Thai restaurants in town though?

September 2013 update:
I stayed behind another day or so after my siblings left town to catch up with some friends. During a free afternoon, I decided to revisit Pok Pok to check out the popular fish sauce wings.

But first, I started off with a Thai drinking vinegar, $5. Slightly tart, carbonated. Refreshing on a hot summer day, but quite a bit overpriced. I buy a whole bottle of drinking vinegar that can make many, many servings for that same price.

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The famous Pok Pok Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings, $14, named after the former cook. Crispy, garlicky, salty umami bomb. The first few wings were pretty good, but as I neared the end, the fish sauce got to be too much. A lighter hand on the fish sauce, and a bit more sugar, would have balanced out the flavors better. I can make these at home! Canh Ga Chien Nuoc Mam Kieu Pok Pok (Vietnamese Pok Pok-Style Fried Fish Sauce Wings).

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All Oregon posts can be found with the tag Series: Oregon, but I suggest reading this particular trip in this order:
PDX and My Parents' Chihuahuas
Salvador Molly's - Portland - Oregon
Why My Mom's Banh Canh Cua (Vietnamese Thick Noodle Soup with Crab) Is Better Than Your Momma's
Ha & VL - Portland - Oregon
Karma Cafe - Portland - Oregon
Oc Xao Nam He (Vietnamese Clams Sauteed with Mushrooms and Chives)
Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden - Grant Park - Portland - Oregon
Pok Pok - Portland - Oregon
Portland Farmers Market at PSU - Portland - Oregon
Downtown Portland - Oregon Redux
Mill Ends Park (Smallest Park in the World) - Portland - Oregon
Tabor - Portland - Oregon
Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen - Portland - Oregon 
Mom's Chao Vit (Vietnamese Rice Porridge with Duck)
Oriental Food Value Supermarket - Portland - Oregon
Mom's Bun Bo Hue (Vietnamese Hue-Style Beef Noodle Soup)

Pok Pok
3226 SE Division St.
Portland, OR 97202
11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

1 year ago today, frozen yogurt at Peach House - San Gabriel (Closed).
2 years ago today, Fried Rice with Bacon, Corn, Eggs, and Green Onions.


  1. Hmmmm interesting. Good to get your opinion about this place because all I hear are raves, raves and more raves.

  2. The thing that I miss about chicken is the SE Asian free range chicken. In which I don't find the same when I tried free range chickens here.

    For people who accustomed with good Asian foods, the sooooo-good standards by others are just average for us. :)

  3. Anna,
    I think we just get too spoiled in SoCal. What's revolutionary elsewhere is old hat for us.

    The chickens here a much bigger, that's for sure.

  4. I don't get the hype about PokPok either! He gets credit from me for doing some things you don't find at other Thai places, but the service lacks, the food is not special, and it's expensive. There are many better places. I admire his success though. He received a James Beard award and opened a PokPok wing joint in NYC, both in 2011, but once got a "great" write up for serving a product he bought at Trader Joe's. I am glad to see someone recognize it as just another place for once.

  5. Russell,
    I think the novelty and accessibility both factor into his success. Journalists can be lazy and if someone is already talking to the press, then other journalists will interview him and it snowballs from there. I like that he's using locally sourced products when he can, which is pretty unusual for ethnic cuisine. The food I had was fine, but restaurant of the year and award-winning?


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