Pok Pok – A little microcosm of tasty and exotic chaos.


I’ve known since the earliest days of Restaurant Roulette, that someday, I would eventually have to find a way to take the group for a dinner at Pok Pok. From its humble beginnings in the little shack, it’s hard to think of a restaurant that has gotten the good press that Pok Pok has (and how many restaurants in shacks really get those glowing reviews?) But after all, it was just a shack, so how could I take people to a regular dinner there? Then the Whiskey Soda Lounge opened in the house next door, and although there were still no reservations, and the largest table was for four people, at least now I could go there for a lunch to check it out. The decor in WSL really didn’t do much for me, too woody and windowless (after all, it’s a basement) but the menu was intriguing, although quite simplified from what was offered at dinner. There were still issues with having a dinner there, however, it was always so crowded, every night of the week, people lined up out the door.


The owner of Pok Pok, Andy Richter, seems like a smart and savvy guy, and he obviously figured out that he had to find a way to expend his facilities to seat more eager dinners without breaking the bank financially. So he decided to open a dining room in his modest bungalow a couple of floors above the WSL, this taking reservations and seating groups of six or larger. This was a pretty modest venture, however, only improving his seating capacity with four tables which seat six (that’s a mere 24 more places.) 


This was finally my chance, a way to take RR to PP/WSL. So the dinner was announced, the reservation was made, and the cut-off was placed at 12, as we basically needed to work in increments of six. It was a cloudy, somewhat mild, and at this point rainless evening when we all gathered for our dinner at PP/WSL, which was a good thing, because despite our month old reservation, we still had to stand outside and wait just like everyone else, as our table was still being cleared of people, dishes, money, and everything else, probably not too surprising, after all, we were taking up half their “dining room.”


Having stood outside this place for 20-30 minutes, one thing is painfully obvious, Pok Pok still only has about 1/2 – 2/3rds of the seating capacity it needs, this place is bursting at the seams. You know a restaurant is having space issues when the reservation desk is outside, by the sidewalk, in the winter. PP has tried to make the most of the space it has, everywhere you look they’ve made some little plastic dining enclosure, including on the second floor porch, and next to the shack, at the picnic tables under the roof, people are in every conceivable space huddled under the outdoor heaters, not caring that they are dining outside in the winter (I think Pambiche started this weird outside even in the winter eating trend) just happy to be experiencing a meal at Pok Pok. The little candlelit enclosures were cute though, and festive (providing you dressed suitably, of course) so I was anxious to see what Mr. Richter had come up with for his upstairs dining area.


I must say at this point, it was quite a disappointment. I know Pok Pok was never meant  to be fancy, but I really felt like I was dining in a train station or some forgotten corridor in a warehouse throughout the entire meal. The room is very strangely shaped, largely because of the stairway coming through the center, and opposite the stairs are ugly industrial looking metal doors to the kitchen, not the type you would expect to be on view in a restaurant dining area. One table is jammed on the other side of the stairs, and the three tables on our side of the stairway barely fit in the enclosure. All of us who sat on the far side were incredibly crammed against the wall, and everyone was scrunched together on both sides. If the 13th person I asked them to fit at the table would have shown up (okay, I know I said the limit was 12, but there was someone I REALLY wanted to include, and it’s my party,) we would have been in a really sorry state. As it was, everyone ended up piling their excessive food dishes on top of each other (but more on that later. Of course with me, more on everything later.)


I wouldn’t have minded the crowding if the room had been gussied up a bit more, but frankly, this eating area was basically butt-ugly. The bottom half of the walls were covered in extremely dark wood wainscoting, and the top half with this weird dingy dark robin’s egg blue paint. The only embellishments were some maps (subway perhaps?) haphazardly slapped on the walls here and there. The lighting was unpleasant and atrocious, dim and dark, not romantic, mood setting dim and dark, but weak overhead lighting too many bulbs burned out dim and dark. Obviously, Pok Pok understood this, as they did put several glowing light sticks on the table to help us old folks read the menus (it wasn’t easy,) similar to those things you see people waving around when they are guiding jetliners around taxiways. There were also one or two of the tiniest, most mass produced tea light candles to “liven things up.” Whomever created this dining area should go back to the mental institution and embellish a few more cells.


Unfortunately, (for them at least, I didn’t attempt it) several of our party left in search of the restrooms in the early part of the meal, and they were MIA for quite some time after that. (I seriously thought Adele had gone home because the table was so crowded, and she was on the end.) From what I was told, the journey to the toilet was quite an ordeal, since for one thing, there is only one on the entire premises for the Whiskey Soda Lounge, the outside eating areas, and the upstairs dining room. Not a good arrangement with so many hoarding masses and so much spicy food to digest. Sara described to me her ordeal of having to go down the stairs, back outside, and through the multitude of people jostling to get inside the WSL. She mentioned nearly having to land punches to get through, people were so uncooperative about letting her pass. (jealous swine!!!!)


One really unpleasant thing, verging on unappetizing, were the pitchers of water on the table. I love it when restaurants put pitchers there for you, then you can have water whenever you like, especially if the food is hot in the least. This water was extremely gross though. I’m all for recycling, but not drinking water. Several people mentioned that from the taste, they assumed the water had perhaps been used for something else, then filtered and re-served. Sara thought it tasted like rice had been steamed in it, and I can’t remember what unpalatable association Lynne came up with, but she refused to drink it after the first taste and resorted to coconut juice later. Also, as I’m assuming is a habit in some areas of SE Asia, the cups were of the tin variety, which can make things taste a bit strange anyway, but the combination of the not chilled liquid, the dreadful before, during and after taste of the water, and the tin cups made for a very negative experience, especially when you are tucking into a variety of really spicy dishes. No wonder so many people resorted to alcoholic beverages. (A first, naturally.)


I decided I would give one of the night’s three specialty cocktails a whirl, the Pomegranate Calpirhina. Don’t ask me what was in it, I haven’t a clue besides pomegranate, but it was a pretty magenta color, nicely chilled, and infinitely superior to the stagnant table water, but excessively priced at $8.50. Brian, the other adventurous soul, had the Crispy Pig Intestine Mojito. Just joshing, he actually had a Tamarind Whiskey Sour. David and Bev had THEIR USUALS, and everyone else who went the way of alcohol had beers. Unfortunately, too many Asian beer names created a comedy of errors, different waiters going back and forth with Tsingtao (Chinese) and Singha (Thai) beers, not knowing who had ordered what, and people at the table not understanding where their beers were disappearing to, only to see them brought back again, although not necessarily the right one to the right person.


The quality of everything (except the elbow room) proceeded to pick up, however, once actual food was ordered. After all, that’s what Pok Pok has really always been touted for, complex, exciting food.


Until I looked at our dinner tab, I had thought the tiny bowl of peanuts passed around the room where complimentary. As it turns out, however, I think David paid for these peanuts, so thank you David for chipping in your buck for all of our enjoyment. And no mere peanuts were these, they were actually “house roasted red peanuts with chillies, lime leaf and sea salt.” Good evidence of the chillies came when David decided he would suck up the dregs, and what he thought was a peanut skin turned out to be a dried chili. Well, what can I say, David always looks good with red skin tones and bulging eyeballs.


As it happened, both the waiter and I seemed to just confuse people as to how much food they should order. Although this was my third time eating at Pok Pok, it was the first time I had ordered dinner. On the previous two times I had lunched there, there had been three of us, and each time we had ordered three entrees and a starter or salad, and we all ended up just marginally full. So my feeling was that the dishes at Pok Pok were on the small side. In an introduction to Pok Pok, the waiter had also described the dishes as being somewhat smaller portions, and said that we should get at least one dish per person, and perhaps a couple more, and suggested dining family style. People at our table seemed to want what they wanted, however, so there was much overlap on certain items ordered, as everyone wanted their own portion. I obviously wanted my portion, and that of everyone else as well, and I had decided on a gluttonous three items that I must have. Luckily I persuaded the kind soul sitting next to me that we should share an item we had a common interest in (thank you Judy) so I only ended up with 2.5 entrees, steamed rice, assorted tastes, and weird dessert. My middle name isn’t oink for no reason you know.


Most things on the menu were so unusual sounding, it really wasn’t that easy to select. I asked the waiter a question about the difference between the two baby back ribs on the menu (which we had seen and smelled sizzling away on the grill when we were waiting outside, forever) and after his description, many people at the table wanted baby back ribs. Sadly, right after we had started to order, some annoying stooge came out and told the waiter they were out of ribs (at 7:30?) and several of us had to make a second selection in a hurry. This created much mumbling, grumbling, and rumbling at our table, as when people want ribs, they want ribs. Bad water then no ribs, harumphf!!!!


When the food started to arrive though, relatively rapidly and in a large glut all at once, people soon realized that we might have a teensy bit too much food, as entrees were larger than most had planned on, especially at the North end of the table, where several of us had gone on a food ordering frenzy, and we quickly ran out of room on the table to place dishes. The contrast between the ends of the table was quite interesting. Although the North end of the table had went berserk and ordered almost everything in sight, the South end was like a broken record, with five people ordering one of Pok Pok’s most famous dishes, Kai Yaang, the “charcoal roasted natural game hen stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, pepper and cilantro, served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce.” The recommendation on the menu says “needs sticky rice,” but people decided to wing it (yes, a hilarious game hen joke) and consequently ordered all three kinds of the rice that Pok Pok has to offer, sticky, jasmine, and coconut (you have to pay for rice separately at Pok Pok.) The sticky rice came in this adorable little woven covered basket situation, and was all wrapped in plastic, and while Sara had it whupped, as one who commonly eats side dishes with her hands, the person to my left did not like her sticky rice, since for one thing, it was really sticky, and perhaps really starchy too, as sticky and starchy often go hand in hand in the rice world. If only Pok Pok could send some of this rice to the previous rice destitute Menji-En, it might even out this whole Portland-wide rice imbalance. but we all know, that’s a different  (and even meaner) review.


The South end of the table seemed pretty happy with their over-adundance of game hen, and I didn’t really hear much going on down there, except for a lot of smacking away. (Not really, these are classy sorts.)


Our end of the table had basically neglected the game hens except for one order, and instead, in an opposite sort of poultry mania, we had many orders of another of Pok Pok’s signature dishes, the spicy version of Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, which were described as “fresh, natural chicken wings marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep fried, tossed in caramelized Phu Quoc fish sauce and garlic and served with Vietnamese table salad.” Sounds health conscious, don’t you think? In fact, the whole North end of the table could have been at TGIF Fridays, all this interest in baby back ribs and chicken wings. The chicken wings were really good though, so good I actually bothered to take my leftovers home for a change, and only moderately spicy, not sinus blasting though.


The North end of the table did end up with some pretty spicy items though, as we are the types who embrace danger. Two people had the Muu Paa Kham Waan, which was “boar collar rubbed with garlic, coriander root and black pepper, glazed with soy and sugar, grilled over charcoal and served with chilled mustard greens and a spicy chili-lime-garlic sauce.” When I couldn’t have the ribs I had selected Neua Naam Tok, a “spicy Issan flank steak “salad” with fish sauce, lime and chili powder dressing, shallots, lemongrass, mint, cilantro and toasted rice powder.” Needless to say, anything that comes with a spicy chili-lime-garlic sauce is definitely hot, and although I could have done without all the cilantro, everyone who tasted it liked it, in a burning sort of way. Three people had the famous “Papaya Pok Pok” which is a “green papaya salad with tomatoes, long beans, Thai chili, lime juice, tamarind, fish sauce, garlic, palm sugar, dried shrimp and peanuts made to order.” Other herbivorious types selected the Herb Salad instead, a “special Northern Thai herbal salad with ginger, carrot, parsnip, betel leaf, basil, lime leaf, sawtooth, fried shallots, cashews, peanuts, sesame seeds, dry shrimp, ground pork and Thai chilies in a mild coconut dressing.” Quite the concoction, and too natural sounding for me. 


Other entrees were Muu Sateh (it was pork, shouldn’t it be Oink Satey?,) “Carlton Farms pork loin skewers marinated in coconut milk and turmeric, grilled over charcoal and served with peanut sauce, cucumber relish and grilled bread;” Kung Op Wun Sen which was “wild caught gulf prawms baked in a clay pot over charcoal with pork belly, whiskey, soy, ginger, cilantro root, black pepper, Chinese celery and bean thread noodles:” and Hoi Thawt, a “crispy broken crepe with steamed Puget Sound mussels, eggs, garlic chives and bean sprouts served with Shark Sri Rache sauce.” I was one of the people who ordered this broken crepe, which was served very close to the end of the meal, and it was extremely good, and unusual, but by the time it arrived, I was pretty through with eating.


Which of course, brings me to dessert (okay, so I wasn’t that through.) Before I had even gotten to Pok Pok on Friday I had noticed they had something on their dessert menu called a Coconut Ice Cream Sandwich, which created visions of delicious homemade coconut ice cream pressed between yummy coconut cookies. Okay, maybe I should have actually read the menu further, but as I said, it was dark in Pok Pok. So here is what I and two others ended up having for dessert – “coconut-jackfruit ice cream served on a sweet bun with sweet sticky rice, peanuts, condensed milk and chocolate syrup.” Yes, it was literally a sandwich, with tiny scoops of ice cream inside folded over sweetish bread. The ice cream wasn’t bad, but the rest of it, forget it. No dessert sandwiches for me. The only other dessert ordered (there were only four anyway) was the Sankhaya Fak Thong, “steamed Kabocha pumpkin filled with coconut palm sugar custard scented with pandanus leaf.” It got pretty mixed reviews. (What a surprise, I always love desserts with pandanus leaf in them. Makes the bread thing look almost normal.)


Despite the annoying outside wait, the crowded table, the gag-inucing water, and the disappointing dining space, I think just about everyone at our table loved something, if not everything they ordered at Pok Pok. The service was tolerable, if a bit smug, and the prices were reasonable. It’s a wonderfully inventive, one of a kind restaurant, and certainly unlike any other Thai or Southeast Asian place in Oregon, if not all of the Pacific Northwest. But they really need to open a Pok Pok 2 (they could call it Pok Pok Pok Pok,) or do something to alleviate some of the over-crowding at this restaurant, the crush can put a damper on your dining experience. And speaking of damper, I certainly was when I got back to my car after our party dispersed, as the sky had let loose and it was pouring rain. Which must have made it extremely hard for the huddled masses, as it was only 9:30, on a Friday night, and I’m sure people don’t stop lining up at Pok Pok’s doorstep until their closing minutes. I guess Pok Pok soaked is better than no Pok Pok at all.