Thailand is littered with roadside restaurants, rickety places that are miniature conventions of smells and flavors, shacks that are shoddily constructed and not particularly clean. They’re places in which to throw back whiskey sodas, listen to some tunes, and eat food so spicy it makes you sweat. Perhaps nowhere in America is this scene more accurately reconstructed than it is at Pok Pok’s Whiskey Soda Lounge.
The main lounge downstairs is cozy and divey, with low ceilings. An upstairs dining room accommodates larger parties and is a bit more formal; the driveway/patio area is open for table service on warm days, with Pok Pok’s to-go shack above it. Wherever you want to sit, be prepared to wait an hour or more.
Cocktails are more balanced and exotic than what you’d be likely to find in Thailand, including a delicious tamarind whiskey sour with lime, palm sugar, and Bourbon, and a salty plum vodka collins that’s as refreshing as an oyster mignonette. Bitburger and Lagunitas IPA are on draft.
A seasonally rotating menu generally focuses on the Northern Thai regions of Issan and Chiang Mai. There is also some Vietnamese crossover in this cuisine. You won’t find many recognizable food-court dishes here. If you haven’t spent serious time in Thailand (and outside touristy areas), forget everything you think you know, and experience what Thai food really is (and then wonder why on earth no one else is doing this): lime, chili, fish sauce, fermented shrimp paste. Sour, spicy, salty, umami. Amazing. If you’re stuck, defer to your knowledgeable server—the one in the mohom shirt.
Pok Pok presses its own coconut juice, which shines in khao soi, with house-made curry paste, chicken on the bone, mustard greens, shallots, dried shrimp, crispy yellow noodles, and chili paste. It is, as James Lipton would say, a revelation.
That sense of wonder continues, dish after dish: grilled boar collar in evocative chili-lime sauce; whole roast chicken; and so on. People go crazy for Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings, which are fiery, sweet, and fun, but certainly not the best thing here. It’s the dishes with the most disconcerting descriptions that are best—the ones that unmoor you from familiar textures and flavors: stewed pork leg with pickled mustard greens; som tam (green papaya salad with raw crab) glowing nuclear-red with heat; or cha ca la vong, a catfish dish made famous in Hanoi. Just give in to the good pain of Portland’s most intense chilies.
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