Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pok Pok - Portland, Oregon

Pok Pok outside

The story of Pok Pok goes as follows: Andy Ricker is a chef who fell in love with Thai food during repeated trips to the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and eventually set out to do it himself. Pok Pok started as a rotisserie grill take-out business in the driveway of a house, and over time expanded, in somewhat haphazard fashion, into an actual restaurant. "Authenticity," a hot-button word recently, comes up often in discussions of Pok Pok because (a) Ricker is white; and (b) notwithstanding (a), the food at Pok Pok is regularly praised as being more "authentic" than what you will find at most typical Thai restaurants in the U.S.

The issue of "authenticity" gets a lot of attention lately. Is it "authentic" when Ivan Orkin, a white guy from New York, goes to Japan to open a traditional ramen shop? Is it "authentic" when Grant Achatz and crew set out to do a Thai menu for three months at their everlasting pop-up restaurant, Next? Why don't we ask the same questions about authenticity when they do a menu of Escoffier French classics from a hundred years ago?

What about when a Burmese-American and Jewish-American couple start serving dinner out of a hole-in-the-wall Chinese take-out shop in San Francisco's Mission District, sometimes doing contemporary adaptations of Chinese-American classics prepared by a Korean-American chef raised in Oklahama? (Note: if you haven't yet, do check out the Mission Street Food book; it's often a little too pleased with itself, but is nonetheless a fascinating read for a multitude of reasons, the food being only one of them). And surely there's nothing "authentic" about Torrisi Italian Specialties serving up lamb's tongue gyro salads and curried cavatelli?

"Authenticity" is the mantra of many a typical food snob, and yet it's never entirely clear exactly what it means. There is a great piece in the Lucky Peach magazine by Todd Kliman called "The Problem of Authenticity" (sorry, not available online) which persuasively makes the case that it doesn't mean much at all. So many cuisines, even in their "native" forms, are capable of so many infinite variations, and so many "traditional" dishes are actually themselves the result of historical cross-cultural mash-ups that would today go by the sobriquet of "fusion" dishes, that labeling any one particular iteration as "authentic" is a fool's errand.

Kliman suggests, for instance, that Torrisi, with its attention to fresh, local ingredients and its effort to honor the foods of its immediate surroundings or "micro-culture," is authentically Italian in spirit, a different kind of faithfulness than to particular ingredients or their traditional combinations. As Torrisi chef Mario Carbone puts it, "Italian food is not sauce and cheese and pasta. It's an attitude. It's an approach."

Karen Leibowitz of Mission Chinese Food has a somewhat different take:
We feel authorized to make dishes outside our families' ethnic traditions, and we freely mix different cultures' ingredients and techniques, because we like to eat delicious food, wherever it comes from. After a while, sticking with 'authentic' food from your own identity is boring. (Especially if you're Jewish.)

All of which is a long way of saying: I'm not going to be the one to say whether or not Pok Pok and its chef Andy Ricker are serving "authentic" Thai food.

(continued ...)

I can say this: the menu at Pok Pok is certainly different from the generic and ubiquitous menu that seems to be mandatory for most every Thai restaurant in South Florida and many other parts of the country (there is one primary variant which also includes sushi).[1] It's short - maybe twenty items total - and focuses primarily on salad type items served with rice ("kap khao" = "with rice"), and grilled meats ("yaang" = "grilled" or "bbq"), with a few noodle dishes thrown in for good measure.

Pok Pok inside

The space at Pok Pok is different, too. Plywood and corrugated metal sheeting provide additional covered areas jutting out from the original structure, picnic benches provide the seating, and multicolored Christmas lights provide the decoration. It feels kind of like a yard party on steroids. The sort of ramshackle expansion plan was necessitated by the place's incredible popularity, so strong that even on a Monday night there was an hour-long wait for a table (no reservations taken for groups of 4 or less).

The good news is that Ricker bought a place across the street, dubbed it the "Whiskey Soda Lounge," and serves drinks and bar bites of varying degrees of substantiality to assuage diners during the wait. An area in back is fenced in with bamboo and covered with a tent, with more picnic benches covered in red-and-white vinyl tablecloths. The drinks menu is nearly as long as the food menu at Pok Pok, and features among other things a hugely satisfying tamarind whiskey sour, and a refreshing gin and tonic made with house-infused Kaffir lime gin. The kids did not love the "som" or drinking vinegars, diluted with soda and available in a variety of flavors ranging from celery to passionfruit to rhubarb; but Little Miss F did enjoy the fresh-squeezed limeade ("nam manao") with an assertive pinch of salt.

With an hour to go before being seated for dinner, we tried the chicken wings at the Lounge (also a staple of the Pok Pok menu). They are Vietnamese rather than Thai in derivation, marinated in fish sauce and cane sugar, deep fried, and then tossed with a caramel glaze that reinforced those same funky, sweet notes. They were delicious, and also a generous plate to share at $12. The downside was that by the time we were seated at Pok Pok, the drinks and wings had taken a bit of the edge off our hunger (and, as I've experienced before, somewhat dampened the moods of the rest of the family, particularly those not yet of drinking age). As a result, we ordered perhaps more modestly than I might have hoped.

kai yaang (game hen)

If Pok Pok has a "signature" dish, it would likely be the Kai Yaang, a grilled game hen stuffed with lemongrass, garlic and cilantro and served with two dipping sauces, one a sweet-spicy chile sauce and the other tart tamarind.[2] Though billed as charcoal rotisserie grilled, you'll see in the comments thread to this review that they actually stopped grilling the birds over charcoal a few years ago for environmental reasons, instead doing them on a gas grill and finishing them in a pellet smoker. It was nonetheless a good bird - a very good bird - crisp skin, juicy flesh, nice infusion of flavor from the lemongrass. And also a great value at $12 for a whole bird. But is it worthy of the over-the-top praise heaped upon it? I'll admit I wasn't convinced.

We ate the bird, as well as everything else, with sticky rice, served in cute little woven bamboo containers, which the kids enjoyed all the more when I told them it was appropriate behavior to ball up the rice with your hand and use it for sccooping.

muu sateh (pork skewers)

Pork Sateh is a staple of even the most generic of Thai menus. Pok Pok elevates theirs with nice quality pork which doesn't get dried out on the grill, cubes of tender pork fat capping off each of the skewers, and dense squares of grilled bread alongside (which the menu claims is a normal accompaniment in Thailand). The other acompaniments - a thick, viscid peanut sauce and a refreshing watery cucumber salad - were more familiar.

Yam Woon Sen is one of Mrs. F's favorite Thai dishes, a salad of slippery cellophane noodles usually seen tossed with ground pork and shredded vegetables in a dressing of fish sauce, chile, garlic and lime. Pok Pok's version gave more prominence to naem, a fermented pork sausage, than to the ground pork. It was good, but somewhat tame for a dish that ought to be jumping with spice (we were not asked how spicy we wanted any of the dishes prepared).

sai ua samun phrai (sausage)

"Sai Ua Samun Phrai" is a Northern Thai dish which here unites a few different components. "Sai Ua" is a Chiang Mai grilled sausage, the pork here done in a chunky style packed with herbs and spices. It's served with nam prik noom, a green chile dip, along with fresh vegetables (most notably, skinny green beans tied into knots), herbs and pork rinds for scooping. This was another dish that was very good but still felt like it was lacking in punch, even though described as "rustic and spicy" on the menu.

And that was I think generally where I felt a bit let down by Pok Pok. Where some cuisines strive for balance, what I enjoy about Thai food is when the components of sour, sweet, salty, funky, and spicy - and in many dishes, you need spicy - are all competing for attention. It's a form of balance, but an aggressively competitive one. And the food at Pok Pok, even dishes that ought to be raucously spicy, often felt timid.

Pok Pok was good - it was leagues better than almost any other Thai restaurants I've ever been to, whether that's attributable to "authenticity" or just good cooking.[3] I just wish it had been bolder.

Pok Pok
3226 SE Division St., Portland, OR

Pok Pok & Whiskey Soda Lounge on Urbanspoon

[1] Tamarind Thai in North Beach is something of an exception, with a more varied menu and the willingness to more assertively spice their food if you make clear to them that's what you want (though if you don't do so, it's disappointingly bland).

[2] Apologies for the lousy picture quality, it was dark and the available lighting was rather unusual.

[3]To my taste, however, it paled in comparison to Las Vegas' Lotus of Siam. They're very different places. LOS has no atmosphere whatsoever, stuck away in a dingy strip mall surrounded by businesses of varying degrees of ill repute. LOS has a menu that goes on forever, compared to Pok Pok's carefully curated list. But LOS's food had an assertiveness and vibrancy that Pok Pok's lacked. Among other things, LOS pulls no punches when it comes to preparing dishes that are supposed to be spicy the right way. They ask how spicy you would like it on a scale of 1 to 10, and anything above 5 carries more heat than I've experienced at any other Thai restaurant. 10 seems just about unfathomable. This is not a matter of being some kind of a macho chile-head - it's just part of what makes the particular cuisine exciting and interesting to me.

1 comment:

  1. This review somewhat reminded me of your experience in DC at Etete.