Review: Pok Pok – To Go Food

Refreshed 4.11  Note that this review is for the to-go shack and not for the Pok Pok dining room reviewed here, or Whiskey Soda Lounge across the street. You’ll find the menu and food here is very similar at the new Pok Pok Noi on Prescot at NE 15th.

It was a chilly night, and I felt like the fox that had gotten into the chicken coop. Crispy, crackly chicken skin gave gently under my teeth releasing a flavor somewhat reminiscent of the time I rode my tricycle into a lemon geranium bush. I was eating roasted game hen from Pok Pok Thai on SE 32nd and Division, some of the best Thai food I have ever had in the Northwest.

Andy Ricker from Pok Pok on SE Division is passionate about Thai food, especially the food from the temperate Chiang Mai valley and Isaan area, in the northern part of the country. He makes trips every year, learning more and more about the cuisine. This is good for us, because his passion is paying off in some of the most authentic regional Thai food in town. This isn’t your typical Thai curries and soups, more like the street food you’ll find if you visit the country. For more information on Thai food and the culture, read our Thai Food Primer by clicking here.

I’ve been coming to Pok Pok since it first opened, and during that time the quality would vary a little bit. Sometimes the papaya salad wasn’t quite balanced, sometimes the khao man pork was a bit cold or dry, but after a summer vacation to work on the larger restaurant space next door, and a vacation in Thailand, Andy seems to have smoothed out all the of tones. Lately, I haven’t had a single complaint.

Keep in mind this is a tiny takeout place. On nice days, comfortable wood tables with umbrellas provide a great place to sit. On inclement days there’s only a shed to keep out the wind and rain, but Andy lights a propane fire when you order, and there’s something kind of romantic about eating in the little space watching the downpour. Atmosphere or not, the food is so good, I can’t help but go back over and over. Now Pok Pok has expanded across the street, opening a bar called The Whiskey Soda Lounge.

Moving on to the food. The small menu is very focused on Northern Chaing Mai Region, and the Northeastern Issan region.

The papaya salad is marvelously refreshing, incredibly complex and yet perfectly balanced between sweet, spicy, salty and astringent. Little chopped peanuts and long beans give a distinctive crunch; tamarind and palm sugar work together in perfect balance. I was reminded of Camus: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” It’s wonderful on a hot day.

Khao Soi Kai is perfect for a rainy night. It is like a Thai version of chicken soup. A very hot chili paste and nice crispy noodles are served on the side, giving a yin/yang in textures – add them as you see fit. Pickled mustard greens show what Thai food is all about: a group of completely different flavors, coming together in a harmonious blend, where none stand out, and all work together. It is also a reminder that, just because you call something a curry, it doesn’t mean it has to be spicy hot, but rather distinctively spiced. That is the way it is served here. Lots of complex layers and textures all interplay just right; the best I’ve had in Portland.

Muu Sateh consists of about six pork loin skewers marinated in coconut milk and turmeric. A little cube of fat is placed at the end, which melts down a bit as the pork is grilled over charcoal. I have never been a big fan of sateh until now, but can honestly say this is the best I have ever had. It is so far above similar dishes served at most Thai restaurants, it can’t even be compared. Here it is served with a good peanut sauce, a cucumber relish absolutely bursting with a medley of flavors, and grilled bread, which, sadly, doesn’t do very well on the drive home.

For me, Khao Man Som Tam was like a religious experience. I could eat this on a regular basis. Let’s take it from the bottom up. Steamed coconut rice. Oh my… give me a big bowl of this and a spoon. I have never had better coconut rice in my entire life. I sat in my car inhaling the stuff. Mixed with the juice from the caramelized pork it is so darn good… heck, I can’t come up with the right adjective. The pork itself is shredded, slightly sweet and slightly salty, which works perfectly with the rice; fried shallots round out the flavors. Sometimes the pork can be a little bit dry, but even then it’s great. Also, you need to remember that salty is a very important taste in Thai cuisine. Though your first bite of meat may seem a bit over-seasoned, take a few more bites and mix it with the rice. You will soon realize it all works perfectly. When the chef is on his game, this is an outstanding dish.

Finally, we come to the roasted game hen mentioned at the top of this review. Andy took me out back and showed me the rotisserie he imported from Thailand; the hens turning quickly over a glowing bed of wood coals, giving them a light smoky flavor with amazing aromatics from the lemongrass and garlic. Zounds! Crispy, crackly skin, perfectly moist, wonderfully complex flavors… I was literally bouncing around my kitchen going “Oh, this is so good!” I felt bad eating it alone, so shared some with the dog just so he wouldn’t think I was crazy. He enjoyed it too. I almost finished the dish before noticing the dipping sauce, which is in a class higher than most. Not overly sweet or oily like so many Thai sauces, this was perfect, though I never did end up using much on the bird. It just didn’t need it.

  • Phone: 503-232-1387 to order
  • Address: 3226 SE Division, Portland OR 97202. Map.
  • Hours: to-go hours: daily 11:30am – 10:00pm
  • Website: PokPokPdx.com

Pok Pok & Whiskey Soda Lounge on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. mcattrone says

    Went to Pok Pok to give opening night a shot. I was primarily interested in how the basement was converted into a small full-service restaurant. It was very cool, in my opinion. A few times I pictued myself sitting at the bar throwing back beers on a rainy day – just had that feel – esecially with the green pleather stools. The walls are outfitted with a ?fake? wood trim that reminds me of a 1970′s den – can you say “Dad. I need to talk?”

    The bar is outfitted with mostly whiskey but vodka, gin and soujou as well. Also, an affordable wine selection all in the low to mid $20′s, an assortment of asian beers and a few european pilsners. I tried two mixed drinks – the tamarind whiskey sour was awesome – I’d order this over a regular whiskey sour any day! I also had the Mukong, which was a mix of whiskey, soujou, coke and club soda – It was pretty good but not my taste. They do have a salty plum vodka collins on the menu that I am definitely ordering next round.

    I have to apologize for not knowing the names of each entree I ordered but I didn’t have a chance to grab a menu on my way out. We ordered the lamb skewers with flat bread and a cucumber, onion and tomato salad. The salad was awesome but I would suggest putting it in an extra dish on the plate as the juices ran off and soaked the flat bread. The lamb was a little salty and I like salty – but this may have been a little overdone. We also ordered the Hot and Sour Soup which was a very sour broth with lemongrass, bay, galangal and thai chili’s. The soup had tender chunks of beef in it and was served in a clay pot. This dish fit my bill minus the abundance of non-edible items in the broth. Lastly, we had a noodle dish which was a ground curry with minced fish, green beans, rice noodles, hard boiled egg and basil – my favorite dish of the three but a little light on flavor. However, I enjoyed for its subtleness. It was great with some jasmine rice on the side.

    The bill came to $39.00 and would have been rather inexpensive had we not ordered the cocktails. All in all a decent opening night. The place was constantly busy so that’s a good sign. I’ll definitely be back in 3-4 weeks as I am sure any kinks will all be worked out. I typically don’t go to a restaurant on opening night but I thoroughly appreciate the conversion of basement into dining room idea – truly a grassroots endeavor. Keep doing what your doing Pok Pok!

    P.S. Definitely want to check out the crispy crepe with muscles next time – sounded so good! I’ll see you just after Christmas!

  2. Lisa says

    We went to the Pok Pok dining room last week. Wow… what an experience! I’m a drinks kindof person. I absolutely love trying strange drinks, I tried a Pineapple drinking vinegar it was delicious. I’d go back just to try their other flavors. We ate family style in their small dining room.

    The wait was an hour, but not their fault, they had “campers”, I think with an unexpected long wait it’s always a nice touch to comp a drink or a cheap appetizer (like the shrimp chips) to keep us happy while we waited, but they didn’t. They did bring us drinks which we gave them a credit card to keep a tab (I know it’s illegal in most states to comp an alcoholic drink, but we hadn’t yet ordered alcohol) So this was to keep us from ‘walking out’. They do have very reasonable prices, so they may not be able to afford to comp many things… anyway…

    The dining room was tiny and every table was full. The service was fine, but not great. They were very busy, so it’s probably much better to go when it’s a little slower.

    The food was absolutely awesome. There were flavors in the food which I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I’m well traveled and an adventurous eater but have not yet been to Asia. I find in the States we usually water food down. Not here! When they say it’s spicy they mean it, and they didn’t offer to water it down for me, which I thought was really cool. I love that they keep the integrity of the food.

    Every dish we had was unique, completely different then anything I’d ever eaten, with flavors I’ve never had at any Thai restaurant. I am excited to go back at a slow time of day and try more. I feel like I’m traveling without leaving town.

  3. LadyConcierge says

    I don’t think many places that do not take reservations comp items for your long wait. You chose to go there at that time. Five of us waited an hour and a half in the rain to eat there, and we were glad to do it.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your post. Pok Pok/Whiskey Soda Lounge is a gem and we’re lucky to have it here.

    You didn’t say what you ordered, but try the Hoi Thawt, a broken crispy crepe with scrambled eggs, mussels, bean sprouts and Sriracha, if you didn’t already.

  4. bc says

    I also went to Pok Pok last night and it is by far the best thai in portland….or any other us city for that matter. Pok Pok is the closest you can come to authentic thai in portland.

    if you have been there, you know what i am talking about.

    close your eyes, prented you’re on a beach in the andaman sea, try the Kai Yaang and tell me it doesn’t take you back……………

  5. Theresa from albuquerque says

    I was home for a week on vacation and went to Pok Pok twice for the Khoa Man Som Tam and Soi Kai. I can’t say enough about the food it must be experienced! Portland is graced with many great places to eat and Pok Pok ranks high on the list. I’ll be home for Christmas my 1st stop will be Pok Pok.

  6. jojo says

    Finally dropped by Pok Pok for an early dinner last Saturday. We ate outside because we didn’t want to wait. It was pretty warm, but heck it’s summer, enjoy the sun. I am Thai so I am going to be critical with this comment.
    We had Hoi Thawt, Som Tam, and Kai Yang.
    The Kai Yang, roasted game hen, is not authentic at all. Thai Kai Yang uses coconut base marinade. This game hen is stuffed with lemon grass and other things. I’m a little disappointed with this.
    Som Tam, papaya sald, was too salty for me. My wife liked it though.
    Hoi Thawt, fried mussel crepe, was awesome. The wife said it was better than in Thailand. This dish is true to the street food root.
    sticky rice was very good, soft and moist, good job.

    All in all, it was good, but I was disappointed with the Kai Yang and Som Tam. Gotta give them prop for serving Hoi Thawt though, haven’t seen it in any thai restaurant. Anyway, I’ll try other dishes next time. 2 and 1/2 stars for now.

  7. watermama says

    We tried Pok Pok in late June for a family party.

    What a sorry excuse for authentic Thai food, even for ‘street food.’ If you want greasy eggs, go for it. The mussel dish was a real disappointment.

    The Papaya salad was ok, but not as good as other Pdx options.

    Some of the drinks were good, others not.

    Service was so so to start (mixed up drink orders, brought sticky rice 20 min. before food) and really quiet terrible to finish.

    With so many great Thai option in PDX, this is a very sorry attempt, and not worth a second chance.

  8. one swell foop says

    Having just tried PokPok Shack and the Khao Man Som Tam for the first time, I can say that I feel as if I have lived a fuller and happier life. I will be back, many times, for much more PokPok !

  9. veronicaone says

    well diisappointed early dinner, confused hostess, loudmouth girl from ny table next to ours inside, unseasoned pork satay, rubbery pork, raw greens, etc…will not go again

  10. Belle says

    Went last night with a big group and tasted just about everything on the menu. I wanted it to taste so good after reading the reviews & seeing how it won top 10 in Portland. Papaya salad was tasteless, maybe the salt, fish sauce or lime juice was forgotten? The thinly sliced pork skewers were on the grill longer than needed, hence leather texture. The crispy noodle with chicken soup AND prawn & pork belly hot pot did not have enough broth or sauce (probably about a 1/2 cup in each) to keep the items moist. The noodles in both were so starchy from lack of liquid they just stuck together. The grilled calamari was a plate of 85% greens that were so coarse and not cleaned with 7 tiny pieces of over grilled squid. I know it is busy and the kitchen can only handle so much volume day in and day out, but go back to the basics, clean the salad instead of pulling straight from the case it came in, taste the food for proper seasoning, pull the food from the grill a little sooner if the meat is going to rest before serving. The service was fabulous. The wait staff is such an earnest hip group of people looking to please at every opportunity

  11. John Hall says

    I loved the Kai Yaang. It was the principal reason I frequented Pok Pok. These birds were perfectly cooked roasted on the charcoal rotisserie. Like a taste from heaven, these birds were.

    Unfortunately, Pok Pok has sited their “carbon footprint” and the inconveinence of having to clean their facility as the principal reasons for meddling with their signature dish (see http://www.pokpokpdx.com/index.php?page=news).

    Now, they are spatchcocking and roasting the hens on a natural gas grill, and doing some funky post-cooking deal to produce a conterfeit smokey flavor.

    I had my favorite dish in SE Portland last night, and am sad to announce that Pok Pok has lost a regular.

    The bird I ate last night was just like the slimy chicken that exists beneath the Colonel’s extra tasty crispy recipe, which I recommend as a viable trade-off due to its relative economy.

    Going green has succeeded in making Pok Pok a “Northwest Thai Joint,” whereas it used to be an “Authentic Thai Joint.”

    Has the going green succeeded? I wonder if anyone in Thailand has followed suit? Maybe the people who singularly cook with this method should be the ones leading the charge for going green.

    Have fun with your slimy KFC chicken Pok Pok, you used to make a great bird.

    -Former Pok Pok Patron

    • says

      This feels like a trolling comment to me. You don’t believe that Pok Pok might give a damn about their carbon footprint? You don’t believe that it makes a mess and the prices have gone way up for all the mesquite they are using? You don’t believe that the owner doesn’t really care about the deforestation of the Sonoran Desert? Or is it that you are so incredibly selfish, that the only thing that matters to you is that you get your chicken just the way you want it?

      Lots of restaurants would have made this change without telling anyone, but Andy has the balls to make a point of letting people know in advance. We may not see eye-to-eye on some things, but I have enormous respect for him, and if he says “our tests have been very successful, and I am happy with the new product”, I believe him. Something tells me your business won’t be missed.

      But yes, we know; it’s all about you.

      Dear Pok Pok customers,
      We are changing the way we cook our birds from now on, and here’s why: We are burning somewhere around 400-500 pounds of mesquite charcoal a week at this point. While the flavor achieved by cooking over hot charcoal is undoubtedly hard to replicate, the good of switching certainly outweighs the bad.
      First of all is the carbon/environmental footprint aspect; we are making a pretty big one both by burning and buying so much mesquite charcoal (which is linked to deforestation of the Sonoran Desert). Next cleanliness; the whole joint is covered with dust and soot 24/7 which fouls up filters, AC units, refrigeration etc. To top it off, the rotisserie is known to suddenly break in the middle of service!
      So, the recipe stays the same, but we will be spatchcocking and roasting the hens on a natural gas grill with lava rocks. We are holding the birds in a cleaner-burning pellet smoker BBQ to give the smoke flavor back that is lost by taking them off the charcoal. Our tests have been very successful and I am happy with the new product.

      We will continue to use some charcoal for the sateh grill and the clay stoves
      for now, though we are testing other charcoals that burn hotter and cleaner than mesquite and hope to switch if we can get a steady supply.
      Thanks for understanding and please let us know what you think of the birds when you come in to eat.

      Best, Andy

      PS: The rotisserie will be kept around and used for special events and off-site functions in the future.

      04, August 2008

  12. Apollo says

    I was wondering why there were suddenly a couple of Traegers at Pok Pok the last time I was there. I BBQ a lot on my Traeger and I think they do a damn good job. It may not be the same taste as the old charcoal hens, but I applaud Andy for trying to make a difference. I’m sure if the response is overwhelmingly negative he will switch it back.

  13. garden girl says

    I’ve been a long time fan of Pok Pok – in fact I sometimes crave those wings. We were there last week and I can’t put my finger on it, but everything was a bit off. The wings weren’t as tasty and crisp, the tamarind whisky sour (one of my favorites) didn’t sing of either tamarind or bourbon, the prawn and noodle dish was just dull. Andy was leaving as we arrived, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. Service was great, but the food was not up to Pok Pok’s usual high level. It could have just been an off night. Has anyone else had a similar experience?

  14. mzwong says

    The same thing happened at Lauro while Dave Machado was opening Vindalho. I think that it’s important to let the owner/chef know when this happens, and not just stop going there. That way they can correct the situation.

  15. Food Gems says

    I gave up on Pok Pok when they got too busy and overwhelmed and super snotty with “too cool for school” and “we so busy we don’t need your business” attitude. I could care less about Ping no matter the hype led by Karen Brooks.

    There are lots of great options in town including Lauro – as busy and solid as ever – Vindalho putting out tasty dishes. I’ll head out to 82nd when I need the Thai hit.

    Maybe if I have to have food overflowing with passion I’ll track down that grill cheese from the school bus.

  16. Robin says

    I went with my husband a while back. The place was empty and we were seated at a corner table with plastic chairs and served water in plastic cups. Other tables were available, but dirty. No one cleaned the tables the entire time we were there. We ordered Kow Soy (SP?) chicken the BBQ’d chicken and a few other items, plus some mixed drinks. The service was spotty and we had to get up from the table (in an empty restaurant) to ask for water several times. I hate to say it, but the best tasting thing in the restaurant was the water. There wasn’t much flavor to any of the dishes. I can’t even remember what our mixed drinks tasted like, they were that unmemorable. Our server smelled awful and really needed to shave and take a bath. What’s with the need to show us your tattoos? I’m really not interested in your body art and I think you look like a walking billboard. I think there are better Thai restaurants than this place. Overall the place was dirty and dumpy. Sorry, but we won’t be going back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *