The Dining Report – The Red Onion

What’s With All This Dang Food?  A Menu You Can’t Refuse!

As everyone knows, Portland has been inundated with Thai restaurants over the last 10-15 years, 90% a cookie cutter mold of the one down the street. It’s like people from Thailand come here and say, okay, Americans like Pad Thai, and Pad Kee Mao, and salad rolls, and three or four curries. Let’s build our restaurant around those dishes, throw in a few others, make them like everyone else, work really hard, then we’ll be a success, even if we are the same as every other Thai place. In a “dining town” like Portland, this really is not the way it should go, 50 marginal Thai restaurants, each with their small legion of fans.

IMG_1319Aside from Typhoon, which has always had innovations on their menu next to the standards, it took food visionaries from “these parts” to bring anything interesting and unusual to our local “Thai table”, Andy Richter from Pok Pok and the folks at Siam Society understanding that Portland is a dining destination in the 21st century, and palates around here are more than ready to experience more non-conventional Thai food preparations and embrace them. Pok Pok is really more of S.E. Asian restaurant though, many items have Vietnamese origins, and one of the main reasons to go to Siam Society is that it’s a really cool place to eat, the food is fine, but really not the main draw in my opinion, it’s “the scene”.

So where are those daring Thai people out there, those who understand that Americans are ready to try the unusual and unknown? (after all, how many dumb westerners try those ghastly “Crispy Pig Intestines” at Malay Satay Hut? Even I had a bite of those delicacies, and I can tell you, nasty.) Evidently someone has been twisting Dang Boonyakamol’s arm, because now, with his third Portland restaurant (he sold the other two, Chaba and Dang’s Thai Kitchen) more and more unusual Thai recipes are appearing on his menu, and Dang’s newest restaurant, Red Onion Thai Cuisine, actually has a separate special menu of authentic and daring (for these parts) Thai favorites. So perhaps it’s not too surprising to see that not only has Red Onion already become the best reviewed restaurant in Dang’s Portland repertoire, it looks to be his most popular one as well (although Chaba Thai, the first PDX restaurant he owned, remains very popular to this day). A glowing review in the A&E and being Willamette Weeks co-runner-up for restaurant of the year last month certainly hasn’t hurt Red Onion’s popularity, and besides the pleasant atmosphere and excellent execution of Thai standards, most of the praise has been heaped on Dang’s special “No Refuse” menu of more unfamiliar Northern Thailand cuisine.

I’ve been acquainted with Dang for quite a few years now, as he’s been a customer of mine since the early days of Chaba. Dang is a nice man, and always knows how to make the most of his restaurant spaces, going for tasteful colors and relaxing SE Asian decor rather than frou frou Thai (Thai Thai on Hawthorne, frightening!!!) IMG_1330I usually don’t hear that Dang has sold a restaurant until he is opening the new one, but so far I have had good luck tracking him down, and know that when I find him there will be some good eating involved, both Thai standards and the more unusual dishes that are becoming mainstays at Red Onion, and on top of all that, I can have a reservation too if I want (although Pok Pok might be easier now that their additional space is opening).

As is the weird case with all the dinners these days, we were a group of five, three wonderful regulars, me, and the rotating fifth, in this case our oldest of RR returnees, my original member, the former Belly Button Poet, Michael. IMG_1315(Nowadays, I guess his poetry comes from a different orifice). The last time we saw MB it was Peruvian, way back in the beginnings of 2009 , so it was good to welcome him back to the fold. We have to continue to squeeze at least one to two dinners a year out of this character, so I can continue to remember the group’s humble origins and earliest days, since my brain is getting old and feeble, I need additional gray matter to make sure our history is not forgotten!  Michael has been at dinners all over the spectrum, from three people to fifteen, so he is living proof that every RR dinner does not consist of five diners!

IMG_1333As per usual with Dang, the decor at Red Onion is vibrant colors, in this case mostly green with red and yellow accents, dark wood trim, and recessed Buddhas sitting in recessed frames in the walls. Not over the top fancy, but really pleasant. Red Onion was buzzing with activity this Friday night, lots of people lined up at the door, and on this evening jammed above capacity due to a large and rowdy bachelorette party filling the south side of the restaurant (at first I couldn’t figure out where all the girlie screaming was coming from). Because people were still eating there, it took a few moments past reservation time to be seated at our table, but once those people headed toward the door, the Red Onion staff whipped themselves into a frenzy to get our table ready for us in record time.

As is the case with many Americans who only eat Thai food now and then (I did go through a crazy period about 10 years ago though when that was ALL I wanted to eat) I have my favorites, and most of the time I stick with them, Pad Kee Mao, Green or Red Curry, Salad Rolls, Thai Fried Rice, those are usually my staples.IMG_1321 The reviews that have raved about Red Onion have all mentioned the special No Refusal menu though (now a specials menu, but originally I guess for only those in the “know” who asked for it) so I had decided before I even arrived that I would mix things up a bit and try at least a couple of things from this side of the tracks, especially because many of the best RR dinners are those with lots of sharing involved. And I must say, judging by the amount of food at our table this evening, our super-ordering but absent friends Grace and Frank would have been made proud by our excess.

As I was too dumb to remember that I should keep our receipt from the evening, to later be able to document just what the multitudes of things we ordered were, by now, two weeks later, I can only remember about half the things we tasted, especially as I don’t have a copy of the “Special” menu.IMG_1317 I also cannot exactly say who ordered what, there was so much sharing it was hard to tell what was furnished by whose pocketbook, but I’ll try to briefly touch on those dishes that I know exactly, those that I have some idea of their ingredients, and those I have no idea what they were. That being said, I do remember, everything was tasty, and there was a whole lot of it.

As there were takeout menus by the door, while we were waiting for our table, several of us had scoped out the regular menu for what to order. Several of us had heard about the stuffed, fried calamari tubes, one of the more interesting dishes at Red Onion, but only saw the regular fried calamari.IMG_1322 As I thought, these were only on the special menu, and both Michael and I plunged ahead and ordered some. Generally when you order calamari in these parts you get lots of little bite sized morsels of legs and tubes, all hacked up, but these were jumbo sized tubes stuffed with ground pork and spices, deep fried crispy then cut into sizable portions that were filling after only a couple of bites. Quite interesting.

A somewhat similar preparation from the regular menu was the Angel Wings, “boneless chicken wings stuffed with ground pork and shrimp, glass noodles, carrots, mushrooms and onions, served with a cucumber sauce”. I know it was David who ordered these, and to be honest, I probably ate at least as many pieces as he did, as they were one of my personal favorites this night. IMG_1320 Also tasty and deep fried, Heidi and Julian’s Shrimp Tempura, which believe or not, was much like shrimp tempura. I know Chaba Thai also has Shrimp Tempura, although I’ve never had it, and it makes me wonder if it’s something you actually get in Thailand, Tempura, or if it’s just something safe for people to order at Thai restaurants when they are afraid of Thai food.

As is always a good bet in a Thai place, Heidi and Julian decide to check out Red Onion’s version of salad rolls (here called Fresh Rolls). Although they kindly offered me one, I declined, because although I always enjoy salad rolls, I can never eat them without making a ridiculous mess, glass noodles and lettuce all over the place. They said they were quite good, although not as good as their favorite salad roll joint, a little thai place I’ve now forgotten, but I think they said the place on Belmont across from La Calaca Comelona.IMG_1321 If they haven’t in their years in PDX, perhaps H & J should check out the salad rolls at Beau Thai, that so-so place in NW that has the best deal on the largest portion of salad rolls (they always did those well, I must say).

Another somewhat healthier selection at our table was David’s Papaya Salad. David is a big fan of the Green Papaya Salad at Pok Pok, so I had the feeling he would order it at Red Onion, and sure enough, he did order the Som Tum (shredded green papaya, Thai chili,, garlic, cherry tomatoes and peanuts tossed with Som Tum sauce). IMG_1318 I thought it was pretty close to Pok Pok’s version, perhaps a tiny bit less spicy, but everyone at the table was confused as to what the purpose of the wedge of cabbage was on the side, decoration, something to mop extra Som Tum sauce up perhaps? Whatever it was for, shortly after the Papaya Salad arrived we got a gigantic influx of food, and the cabbage wedge lingered on the table through most of the meal, left with a tiny heap of the salad, until one of the waiters got confused and assumed we wanted it removed from the table. David had thought it was being taken into the back to be wrapped up and taken home later with the rest of the leftovers, so asked about his small serving of leftover salad. The waitress went back into the kitchen and returned in a few moments with a brand new order of papaya salad for David to take home, as his had been discarded. The second of two very kind gestures on display at Red Onion Thai this evening, a fresh salad free of charge (I have to remember to try this trick with some of my leftovers. Do you think it works with steak?)

Not too long after arriving at Red Onion, I had seen Dang’s lovely wife Jen passing through and said hello, as for some reason she has always remembered me since those early days of Chaba (in fact, I think I met her a couple of times before meeting Dang). A bit later, I saw Dang walking through the dining room, and waved my arms a bit and yelled his name, just so he would know that his old fans were still with him. Although I know he was extremely busy cooking (and seemed a bit weary) he came over to chat for a moment, and thank our group for coming. Someone asked him what he recommended, and when we discussed what we had already ordered, he confirmed we had made some good choices. Later, once the food started coming, a plate of food was brought, compliments of Dang, something he thought we should try but had not ordered. IMG_1324Because of the crazy girl party in the next room, I couldn’t quite hear the explanation from the waiter what it was, but my guess is Po Pia Sod (A fresh roll filled with tofu, shrimp, Chinese sausage, bean sprout, egg, cucumber, carrot and shredded green onion topped with light sauce and fresh Dungeness crab meat). Whatever it was, it was distinctive and delicious, and we appreciated Dang sending it our way, such a good fellow.

As a general rule I think we all got carried away and perhaps ordered a bit excessively. I seem to remember the most modest of us was Michael, who I believe only ordered a sensible two items, the Stuffed Calamari and Ginger Fish (Grilled Halibut topped with fresh ginger strips, onion, mushrooms, celery, bell peppers and fermented soy bean in gravy sauce). IMG_1325 Michael seemed very impressed by the halibut, and insisted I try a bite, which was very tender and imbued with ginger. Heidi and Julian, not really sure of the portion size (which were on the large side) got two items a piece, which ended up being quite a bit of food because of the size of each. Besides their starters of the Tempura and Fresh Rolls, Julian had the Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Noodles) one of my usual staples at all the restaurants Dang has been involved with.IMG_1332 I think Julian enjoyed this wide noodle dish quite a bit, but perhaps found a 4 in hotness a bit spicy (I’ve leaned to always order this particular dish medium or milder, since the chili flakes make it pretty hot to begin with).

Heidi, trying to decide between a couple of substantial sounding dishes, had asked the waitress which she preferred, and Crab Fried Rice was the winner. IMG_1331Not only was the portion large (well, it was $14) but it came with heaps of crab, including little claws of meat. Heidi loved what she ordered, and it seemed like one of the top three items at our table.

David went whole hog this evening (pardon the expression) and I think ordered four items, losing all control. Besides his delicious Angel Wings, and the Papaya Salad, he also had some gigantic bowl of soup which was supposed to be a cup, but seemed like perhaps a mis-order, because if that was a cup, the bowl must be the size of a toilet basin (another delicious food analogy). IMG_1328Since I became somewhat delirious staring at all the food on our table, I don’t know if he had Tom Yum Soup (Spicy and sour lemongrass soup) or Tom Kha (Spicy and sour coconut milk soup) but my guess would be the former, as it has a chili insignia by it on the menu, and David loves those fiery soups. He also had a stir-fried mixed seafood entree, but by the time he dealt with all his other items, and everything else people were offering him, I think he ended up taking most of this home for meals in the following days.

Although a bit more restrained than David perhaps, I still ordered at least one item too many with three, compounded by tasting almost everything else at our table as well. Besides the stuffed squid tubes, the other item I ordered from Dang’s special menu was the dish all the reviewers keep writing about, the mango and trout salad. IMG_1326This salad is certainly full of complex flavors and spices, but because I had so many other things I was eating at the same time, I probably didn’t enjoy it to the full extent I could have if I had only been savoring this salad, but it was probably the most enjoyed item at the table by everyone who had some.

My third order was something I really should not have gotten, I didn’t need more food, but of course that’s hindsight now, and it did make a nice lunch the next Monday. At least at Red Onion, I barely had more than three or four bites of my Green Curry with Shrimp, but luckily Heidi and Julian had a couple bites too, and all three of us agreed that it was very good green curry, but that medium was plenty hot with this particular dish.

So if we do some simple math, Heidi and Julian – 4; David – 4; Me – 3; Michael – 2 and compliments of the house – 1, that equals 14 sizable orders of food for 5 people, could this be why we all rolled like beach balls out to our cars after eating? IMG_1335An interesting contrast to the dinner at Indish, where the waitress kept trying to restrain us from ordering more than she thought we needed. I would think it would be better for a restaurant’s bottom line, however, to always let the customers order as much food as they like. From my observation, most of the time when people order too much food in a Thai restaurant, or an Indian restaurant, they take the excess home, they don’t just leave the food behind to go to waste. So shouldn’t a restaurant sell as much food as they can? As for the service at Red Onion, it was on the ball, friendly, and more than capable, probably the best waitstaff I’ve seen at one of Dang’s restaurants. It’s one of those places where the whole staff seems to look out after you, so if your primary server is busy, someone else swoops in to take care of you.

I must say on an enjoyment scale, this was one of our better dinners this year. Everyone seemed to like the food, and commented on the reasonable prices. After we finished eating, we lingered for quite awhile, discussing places we like around town and ideas for the future Restaurant Roulette dinners. Usually at this time of year I’m lucky if I can eek out one dinner a month, so I’m so appreciating my tiny core of regulars, you’re making the dinners possible in these cold, bleak winter months (I’m a summer gal). So thanks, you know who you are, keep up the good work, and hopefully others will soon join our dining cause.