The term “pan-Asian” usually brings to mind corporate, dramatic spaces situated in newfangled shopping centers and a legion of sugary sweet dishes with indistinct countries of origin. But Ping is quite a different animal. For one thing, its vibe is dark and intimate, like a hidden Tokyo izakaya or a watering hole in colonial Saigon. A narrow room with a warm wood floor and a picture window facing the sidewalk. Some chairs line up at the kitchen counter, which is lit warmly from above by draping light fixtures that evoke traditional sushi curtains (which are thought to refer to the hanging strips of cloth many Japanese sushi street carts featured as communal napkins, before modern sushi was ever brought indoors).
Indeed, Ping does specialize in the street foods of Vietnam and Thailand, though less of the latter. Ping is to Vietnamese what sister restaurant Pok Pok is (predominantly) to Thai, bringing to Portland those quotidian delights that have evaded Americanized Southeast Asian menus in favor of family-friendly, dumbed-down Chinese-American variations. On a cold night, Ping is soul-warming and nourishing; on a warm one, you can close your eyes and listen to the banging and clanging of lightweight pots and bowls, chase the peppery heat down your gullet with some cold beers, and imagine you are in Chiang Mai, the culinary heart of Thailand in the Ping River Valley.
The menu consists of noodles, fried cake dishes, rolls, and finger foods, but the main focus here is on grilled meat, including offal. Some fantastic skewers include chicken liver, chicken heart, pork collar, baby octopus (almost too spicy to handle), and a host of others. These come two per order and are so cheap, you can—and should—sample much of the bounty. Other legit street foods include delicious roast duck leg in noodles; Thai-style dried cuttlefish; and Macanese pork-chop sandwiches in soft buns, flavored with nothing but their own fatty drippings. With “snacks” like deep-fried tiny fish and Chinese egg steeped in black tea for $2 a pop, how can you stop ordering?
It’s terrific to have a sincere countereffort to the cynical accountant-driven chains that have deceived American palates for so long. And what a welcome addition to what had been a fading stretch of Chinatown. If this is what the new Chinatown is becoming, then we’re all for it.
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