Portland, OR has gotten a lot of attention lately. Perhaps it’s a Portlandia thing. I’m not sure. Clearly, Portlandia wouldn’t be worth watching if there wasn’t something interesting happening in Portland. It’s definitely the hipster capital of the West coast, but there’s a great deal more to the city. Beautiful gardens, great restaurants, an awesome independent bookstore, and a wonderfully diverse bunch of seemingly happy people who make it a great place to visit and explore.
I first visited Portland in my late teens. I was young and broke, but wide-eyed and curious. I have distinct memories of the lush, green plant life everywhere, and almost no direct sunlight, but little else. Of course, I was too broke to eat in nice restaurants, or stay in a decent hotel. Rather, I crashed in people’s dorm rooms at Lewis and Clark College and ate whatever food was put in front of me.
It was certainly not the most elevated view of the city.
Over the years, I have returned a few times, but only as Portland managed to be between me and some other destination I had before me. I’ve flown in and immediately driven to the coast. I’ve driven through en route from San Francisco to Seattle or vice-versa. I spent the night in a dive motel near the train station once when a train from Denver to Seattle became so late that I missed my connection in Portland. I was fortunate enough on that journey to secure a couple of hours of quality browsing time in Powell’s Bookstore before my train.
But in all honesty, I had hardly even touched the surface.
Fast forward to the mid-winter of 2014. I walked into my favorite bookstore in Missoula, Montana — Shakespeare & Company — on a typical dreary, cold February day, and there I discovered a brightly colored cookbook called Pok Pok by chef Andy Ricker. I took the book to a cozy leather chair and sat in silent rapture reading. I didn’t buy the book. I put it back on the shelf, and I walked away.My thoughts, however, didn’t leave the bookstore with me. They stayed there, with the pretty Pok Pok book, lingering for several days while I went on with my life. A week or so later, my wife presented me with a gift of two cookbooks. One of them was Pok Pok.
And so begins an adventure with food that has lasted well over a year. It started with finding an inspiring cookbook, and ends with a day or two of serious cooking. But it spans many months, and involves a road trip to Portland and a restaurant that inspired the book, and a couple of foodies who live in a place quite far from the sources of this inspiration who decided to order a few things on the Internet, fashion a few others from what was here, and create some amazing food.
In the weeks after I was given the book, it lived on the coffee table next to my favorite chair. From that vantage point it was able to distract and entice me with its siren song until one day, in early summer, I fell prey once more to its brightly colored cover, and I started to read from the beginning.
I read from page to page, as one does a narrative, until I read the final page, and I set the book down until the following February when thoughts of exotic, spicy foods that had wintered in my imagination got the better of me, and the idea of a Spring road trip sprouted into a plan.
The road trip, which took place at the end of March, was adequately disguised as a family get-away, but for me, going to Pok Pok was a major motive. We drove for ten hours and arrived in Portland ready for adventure. We spent our first day wandering: donut shops, Lan Su Chinese Gardens, the Japanese Gardens, Powell’s Bookstore. Portland presented herself in all her springtime splendor, dressed in sweet-smelling blossoms, and unusually sunny spring skies (with occasional bursts of gentle rain). There was almost none of the infamous cloudy, rainy, grey, unpleasantness that renders my memories of Portland like the cover art of a Soviet era novel.
On the evening of the second day, we made our way to Pok Pok on SE Division Street.The first thing I should say is that Pok Pok is it is not fancy. It doesn’t need to be. It is also quite popular. We went on a reasonably quiet weeknight and found the place busy with a wait of about 45 minutes for a table. We spent that time pleasantly walking around the neighborhood, looking in on shops along SE Division Street. When our table was ready, we were escorted to a cozy picnic table with a sheet-metal covered top in an open-air house basement. A plastic pitcher of water flavored with pandan leaf, four plastic cups and four menus were placed on the table before us.
I had never tasted pandanus before. When steeped in drinking water, it gives the water a wonderful, refreshing flavor that I can only describe as slightly nutty.
I knew immediately that I was about to introduce my palette to some new and unique flavors.
As a family of four, we ordered a variety of dishes including a spicy, savory Northern Thai Minced Pork (Laap Meuang), a grilled salt-crusted whole tilapia with chile dipping sauce (Plaa Phao Kleua), and whole-roasted game hens with a sweet chile dipping sauce and a spicy tamarind dipping sauce (Kai Yaang).
The meal was fantastic.I spent some time after trying to write about the experience and I quickly realized that the English word “Spicy” is inadequate for describing the food. Spicy tends to mean hot, as if the heat of peppers were the main qualification needed in spice. The spiciness of the food at Pok Pok was far broader than just hot chile. Sure, there was some heat, but there was a rich spice palette at play: galangal, tamarind, turmeric, chiles, lemongrass and more.
The following day, I could still feel the spices in my system. (TMI!)
Upon returning home, I immediately decided that I needed to pull out the Pok Pok book and start trying things in the kitchen. As Marianne and I were in the process of talking about this blog, it became clear that Pok Pok was going to play a role in our first set of recipes.
We identified three recipes in the book that we thought we could start with and planned them as a unified trio of courses for a dinner party. I did not want to repeat the meal I had eaten at the restaurant, primarily because I was in no way interested in making a meal I knew to be a shadowy reflection of the real thing. I figured if we ventured into completely foreign territory, at the very least we would avoid knowing how inauthentic we were. I always try to evaluate food I cook on how good it tastes before I rate it for authenticity. But the Roasted Young Chicken (Kai Yaang) was described in Ricker’s book as so central to the start of the restaurant, and so prominent in Isaan (Northeastern Thai) cooking that both Marianne and I knew we had to try it.
The three dishes we chose to prepare were: (Each links to our rendition of the recipe)
A final note on this adventure: buy Andy Ricker’s book, Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand*. It is a fascinating read that will open you to many aspects of Thai cooking that are completely unknown to most Americans. I had a very limited familiarity of authentic Thai food before this experience.
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