Pok Pok is cool.
So cool it’s been declared by the Oregonian as the Restaurant of the Year for 2007. It’s a teeny food stand on SE Division St.- that added outdoor seating – and a hip basement Whiskey Soda Lounge – added more outdoor seating – and took over the house on site – cool. It is the ultimate food cart, or shack, success story.
My group had put our name down earlier, and waited outside a painless twenty minutes, though I can imagine an hour or two later in the evening we’d be fighting for room around the heat lamps. We were seated in the house itself, with our table taking up most of the front room, adjacent to the door. It’s not the setting that made it cool – there was something in the air, perhaps it was the clientèle excitement and spices.
I sampled two of Pok Pok’s lighter fares, both vegan-friendly salads. There were two ‘mealier’ dishes available – the coconut soup and what was basically a stir fry, but I was with a group who was up for lighter family style offerings, so salads were on our radar. The menu itself is primarily omnivorous, specializing in Northern Ahaan Isaan cuisine, with pretty limited veg*n options. Luckily, our server was knowledgeable and told the table that the vegetarian options were all veganizable if not already vegan. If I hadn’t been sipping the salty, sweet Salted Plum Tom Collins during the meal and known we’d be going nearby to Pix Patisserie for dessert (coconut chocolate sorbet) afterwards, I would have itching for some tofu right off the bat. As it stands, there’s not even a mention of it on the menu. Both salads were extremely flavorful and since I wasn’t in the mood for the Khao Soi Kai, a mild curry noodle soup ($11), even from the printed description they sounded the most appealing of all the vegan options.
The first salad to the table was the Special Northern Thai Herbal Salad ($9). As described on the menu with notes and slivers of “ginger, carrot, parsnip, betel leaf, basil, lime leaf, sawtooth, fried shallots, cashews, peanuts, sesame seeds and Thai chilies in a mild coconut milk dressing”. The pairing of fried shallots, nuts and ginger mingling with the sweet dressing is not a flavor you’ll forget. My only gripe would be the serving size for price, but it’s on the menu to supplement a meal, not become one. This is the same case for the second salad I sampled, the Green Papaya Salad ($7.50). This salad was lighter all around, and the flavor cycle of silky, sweet and tangy was on repeat. If papaya pad thai was a vegan candy flavor, this would be it. That would be gross for most, so stick to this made-to-order salad. The random spicy bites with thai chili are great, but it’s the tamarind-garlic-lime-sugar that made me a fan. Though similar in texture, both salads ultimately worked well together. They were not boring salads, and after trying each of the trio of rice options; my stomach at least had something in it to balance the cocktail.
Rice deserves attention here, and Pok Pok is just the place to help you pick your favorite. Is it the creamy coconut? The smooth yet fluffy bite of jasmine? The sticky, sticky rice? Sorry brown rice fanatics, you’re out of luck. Although the coconut was simply lovely – especially with the papaya salad, my vote goes for the jasmine. It was quintessentially fluffy and recommended appropriately along with the herb salad. The sticky rice didn’t do much for me, but I’ve never been a sticky rice fan in the first place. Again, the bowls are small, but we received two bowls of each for a table of 6 ($2 each), and didn’t come up short.
I don’t know if tofu is found in traditional Northern Thai foods, so this may be contrary to Pok Pok’s menu, but it would have been nice to see something more substantial, let alone versatile on the dinner menu for vegetarians and vegans. Perhaps this is the Khao Soi Kai, or the Phat Si Ew Muu (minus the egg) available on the Whiskey Soda Lounge’s lunch menu. When the occasion arises, I plan on trying the curry soup and another of their exotic cocktails and trying not to think about my beloved bean curd. Tofu, however, can be found on the seemingly countless Thai restaurants through the city. Wouldn’t it be grand to have a fantastic option or two at the Oregonian’s Restaurant of the Year? This is Portland, after all.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Address: 3226 SE Division St. Portland, OR
Take-Out Shack: M-F 11:30a-10p, Sa 5p-10p
Whiskey Soda Lounge: M-F 11:30a-2:30p, M-Sa 5p-10p