Review: Pok Pok – Another View

Pok Pok

Pok Pok

If you have never heard Lou Reed sing “Heroin” (“Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life”) on Velvet Undergound’s first album, “Velvet Underground and Nico,” you should have a listen. In protopunk style, Reed nails the junkie insanity of anticipating his fix then rushing through his run and falling back to earth again–pathetically and inevitably. Reed lurches through high-low lyrics culminating with crazy-bowed strings and heartbeat drums ascending in a wild dash, followed by a final crash.

What the hell does any of this have to do with food? Well, it is the best way I can relate to Andy Ricker’s new Pok Pok dining room, or more accurately, the over-syllabled Whiskey Soda Lounge. The place has only been open for, what, two months, and I’ve been in a dozen times so far with “more” as my sole and recurring agenda item. There have been multiple lunches and dinners and one late nighter with only a few other crazies in attendance, most of the food bloggies having already tucked into their keyboards or under their covers after the usual gotta-beat-the-crowd, early-in-early-out meal.

The helluvit is I can’t stop thinking about the place and all the truly great dishes they are dealing. The anticipation builds, then I go and sit and eat until I’m full and have to stop and then go home and start thinking about the dishes I have had and the others I have not tried yet, then I contemplate going again as soon as I possibly can because I must. It is nuts, I admit, but I am a Pok Pok junkie.

Top to bottom, this stuff is as good as it gets. Sure the pork (Muu–should be Oink–Sateh, $7.50) and lamb (Yang Rou Chou’r, $8) skewers aren’t eye poppers, but damn near everything else is. Let’s take that broken crepe with mussels and egg (Hoi Thawt, $9). Now, usually I’ll skip the multiple varieties of food you can eat with no teeth, but this dish could inspire a passionate love for the plump and lowly mussel. The Tom Yam ($9), too, could easily be another cliche version of the same hot and sour soup you can get at 100 Thai joints anywhere. At Pok Pok, the only criticism is that the stuff is a pain in the ass to eat, especially mid-jones, because it is jammed so full of hard and fibrous flavor enhancers–the lime leaves, galangal chunks and lemon grass stalks. Picking through the flotsam, though, reveals a broth of cascading complexity and serious heat. God, I am dreaming of that soup.

Not to stop there. Sweaty withdrawal begins half an hour after bonepicking through a dozen or so Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings ($8). Fried, salty and sweet, they hit all the palate’s pleasure buttons. I’m waiting for a cover version of these to appear over at Fire On The Mountain with a side order of Jerry Garcia noodling cosmically in the background. Even the little bowl of lightly salted skin-on peanuts for a buck, spiked with lime leaves and smokey dried chilies, leaves you craving more when the bowl is empty. Completing a night’s run, the desserts also inspire irrational adulation. Not many places can serve you a combination of familiar and strange fruits, plus a toss of chili and salty and tangy accents (Som Tam Phonlamai, $6), and leave you staring at an empty plate, wondering how it could be gone so fast. (Sadly, this dessert has exited the menu. It was apparently too radical for most tastes. Bummer.) There is nothing wrong with the Pok Pok Affogato ($6) either, a scoop condensed milk ice cream melting sweetly in a wading pool-sized cup of espresso.

What am I leaving out? Maybe it is the specials that flit on and off the back black board, and in and out of consciousness, with Andy’s passing whims–and, oh, about three-fourths of the regular menu. Take the hint, though, there is no bad shit here-only the sullen emptiness when the party is over or has not yet begun again. Speaking of, there is another junkie song on that Velvet Underground album called “I’m Waiting For My Man.” Lou Reed sings:

“Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown?
Hey, white boy, you chasin’ our women around?
Oh pardon me sir, it’s the furthest from my mind
I’m just lookin’ for a dear, dear friend of mine
I’m waiting for my man.”

Curse you Andy Ricker–Pok Pok is my life.

  • Phone: 503-232-1387
  • Address: 3226 SE Division, Portland, OR 97202. Google Map
  • Hours: To Go Shack: Monday-Friday 11:30am-10:00pm, Saturday Dinner 5:00pm-10:00pm
  • Whiskey Soda Lounge Hours: Monday-Friday 11:30am-2:30pm, Monday-Saturday 5:00pm-12:00am
  • Website: PokPokPDX.com

Late night menu after 10:00pm. See website for details.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. tODD says

    Agreed on the fish sauce wings. Unfortunately, the crepe did nothing for me — I could barely taste any mussels at all. The only thing that kept me nibbling at the crepe was the sriracha sauce it came with. I enjoyed the lamb skewers much more.

    Given how cold it is outside, I was disappointed that there was no room to wait inside. And that heat lamp isn’t going to heat everyone that’s waiting to get into such a small, packed space. Makes me wonder why they put the kitchen upstairs and the eating space in the basement.

  2. Kim Nyland says

    Makes me wonder why they put the kitchen upstairs and the eating space in the basement.

    My experience would lead me to say it has to do with handicapped access & the cost that is associated with creating it.

    love that place….wish more people would take advantage of the ‘late night dining’ end of it

    kim @ apizza

  3. anne says

    Curse you Michael Charles.
    I thought I’d gotten over my jonesin’.
    But now I’m pulling on my snow boots for the 15 block walk for some Yunan Lamb Noodle Soup, or maybe some of that wierd and wonderful herbal salad.

  4. Food Dude says

    Kim, I think you are right, re: handicapped access. I also agree with your late night dining. Best place I can think of to go have a few drinks and some great, cheap food, late at night.

  5. says

    Dining unfashionably early might be an option as well – I was at the shack getting take-out at 5:30 earlier this week; Whiskey Soda was open, but empty…

    (I couldn’t take advantage of the unexpected room; my kids were at home impatiently clamoring for their coconut rice and khao soi khai…)

  6. says

    Tonight was actually the first time we went to the lounge — got there at 6:00 and got a table with no wait. The pork ribs were amazing, as was the sweet & sour beef soup, But, yeah, I agree with you on all the hard floaty things. A pain but worth it.

    Catfish curry was good, as was the special prawn appetizer but the stand-outs were definitely the ribs and the hot & sour soup. Oh and the ice cream/coffee dessert combo was great too.

    My only complaint is that the chicken-coconut-curry noodle soup is not on the lounge dinner menu. I totally had a taste for that tonight…

  7. pollo elastico says

    I enjoyed reading this review.

    I am dreaming of that condensed milk ice cream, and I don’t even like dessert.

  8. Sir Loins says

    Three of us went to the Whiskey Soda Lounge last night for the first time.

    Props to the chef, who is clearly doing something different with this cuisine in a town of multiplying same-old-same-old Thai joints. And my hat is off to the kitchen, who was amazingly quick.

    That said, we all liked it, but we didn’t come away addicted like Mr. Charles. Still, two of us are interested enough to have a go at the menu again.

    What we ate:
    ~Kai Yaang (whole game hen)
    ~Sii Khrong Muu Yaang (pork ribs)
    ~Papaya Pok Pok (green papaya salad)
    ~Khanom Jiin Naam Yaa (ground fish – catfish that night- in coconut curry)
    ~Sides of sticky rice, coconut rice, and rice chips with cucumber relish

    Of these, I looked forward the bird the most, mainly because I find roasted chicken rather bland and I was keen to try what sounded like a different take. The meat was moist and tasty, the skin crisp and crackly, but the lemongrass, garlic, pepper stuffing were barely detectable to any of us. I am down with subtlety, but the flavors and aromas we anticipated just weren’t there.

    The ribs turned out to be the surprise favorite, though the serving was the smallest of the main dishes. Small and thin, they had a mouthwatering charcoal aroma and flavor that permeated the meat, which had a just-right chewiness. These were gone in a flash.

    The ground curried catfish was the loser of the night. Overwhelmingly pungent, it was a one-note accord of Thai basil to the Nth degree. I love Thai basil, I grow it to cook with myself, but it was as if an entire plant or two had been cooked into our little bowl. We each had a couple of tastes but left it mostly uneaten. I did have it boxed up though, because I want to see if this flavor might change to something more palatable overnight. I doubt it will mellow, but maybe a night in the ‘fridge will make it more edible.

    The green papaya salad was good, but surprisingly plain. Of the ingredients listed (green papaya with tomatoes, long beans, Thai chili, lime juice, tamarind, fish sauce, garlic, palm sugar, dried shrimp and peanuts) what we could see and taste was green papaya and cherry tomatoes. I definitely prefer the more complex versions I’ve had at pho joints in town to Pok Pok’s.

    The sides were fine, but nothing much different than we’d had before. There was a sameness to the flavors of the sauces that came with the dishes, too. Next time, I’ll concentrate on soups, salads, and grilled items instead of sides.

  9. Ellie says

    Holy hell. We finally went last night. In my mind, it’s the Slanted Door of Thai food, and a great example that Portland doesn’t need another 150 seat restaurant in order to fill some preconceived notion of a void on the food scene. It may well have been the best meal I’ve had in Portland, including the spot on, relaxed, friendly service. The only thing we found lacking was the wine selection (I love small wine lists, but only if ALL of the wines pair well with that style of food.) It’s a small complaint, as I will happily order a beer on future visits, of which I estimate their will be many.

  10. Habanaking says

    Let’s all get this straight once and for all about Pok Pok (aka Whiskey Soda Lounge) is the best asian food restaurant in Portland/Vancouver bar none.

    10′s for originality, design, execution and service. Did I Ileave anything out?

    Right before we went there tonight I was told by a local wine shop owner that the place was not that good and did not live up to the hype. Boy, was he wrong. He could take some notes from them on personable service. First impressions do count tremendously and all the following ones too whether is a wine shop or not.

    Pok Pok is the total package.

    Habanaking

  11. saawaasdeekha says

    Habanaking-

    I could not agree more. Those who have actually experienced the richly diverse regional cuisine in Thailand can truly appreciate the authentic interpretations by Andy Ricker and crew. There is nothing else in PDX that comes close.

    Pok Pok is the total package and the “real deal”.

  12. LoLo says

    Best Thai food in PDX. And I LOVE that when they say hot, they mean it! But it’s sexy hot. Back of the throat and tongue. Not, “I can’t eat my food anymore hot.” So good.

  13. Michael Charles says

    Fearing Greshamite hordes in search of Pad McThai, I hadn’t been to Pok Pok since it received its well-deserved restaurant of the year credential from the O.

    No problem tonight early. Sucked down my smack–couple old favorites and something new, natch. What I told my server is that it was like breathing pure, good air after being under water for too long.

    Andy “My Man” Ricker popped in to change a light bulb. Sez he, except for the 6:30 to 8 pm zone and weekend eves, getting a table still isn’t too bad.

    Thankfully,
    Michael Charles

  14. pdxyogi says

    I heard a Portland restaurateur named “Andy” on Talk of the Nation, a nationwide call-in show on NPR today. He complained about bloggers and their unchallenged veracity. He said anyone can say anything on a blog regardless of how true it is and it can stand, leaving much damage to a resto. He admitted that he himself has been lucky by receiving great comments, but he worries nonetheless about irresponsible scurrelous remarks.

    I’m sure the same people were poohpoohing the printing press hundreds of years ago for the same reasons. Sheesh.

    I wouldn’t worry about it, Andy. The marketplace of ideas will take care of it. If someone is truly full of it, spreading untruths not just idiotic opinions, they will be taken to task.

Leave a Reply

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