When Andy Ricker opened Pok Pok in Portland 10 years ago, he wanted to introduce Americans to Thai cuisine beyond the pad thai and green curries they were used to — introducing the more-nuanced cuisine he had found in his travels around Thailand.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that Thai food is not a monocultural thing,” he said, adding that “Thailand is regionally diverse, and the food from Mae Hong Son province in the north has nothing to do with the food in the Chinese neighborhoods of Bangkok, for instance.”
In the decade since it opened, Pok Pok has ballooned into an empire and helped spawn a new wave of Thai restaurants in Portland. From takeout to tasting menus, chefs have increasingly been taking risks with more-obscure regional dishes, to resounding success.
One of those chefs is Earl Ninsom, whose restaurant, PaaDee, is a favorite standby for Portlanders who want comforting food made with real Thai ingredients. But the most exciting action happens in a back room at PaaDee, where, four nights a week, Ninsom serves a five-course tasting menu. Coveted reservations at this restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Langbaan (langbaanpdx.com), which started in 2014, are $75 and sell out weeks in advance. The menu changes monthly to incorporate seasonal ingredients and to focus on a new regional or cultural theme. Some recent themes have included northeast Thailand, Bangkok’s Burmese influence and the Ayutthaya Era, a period of Thai history that spanned the 14th to 18th centuries.
The recent Ayutthaya menu was full of dishes like crackly grilled squab and Pekin duck curry. Borrowing a technique that is rarely seen today, chefs poached an omelet lightly in a sausage casing and cut it into delicate round disks that floated in a clear, fragrant pork broth.
But along with those ancient techniques and tropical ingredients, Ninsom maintains a spotlight on local produce and seafood from the Pacific Northwest. The gang ped yang curry was made with Walla Walla sweet onions. The heirloom-tomato-and-chili dressing on an albacore and peach salad mimicked the sweet acidic funk of tamarind and took on a briny quality as it mingled with an electric two-tone confetti of finger-lime pulp and tobiko.
Following the success of Langbaan, Ninsom has begun construction on a new restaurant, Hat Yai, which will highlight southern Thai specialties like fried chicken and roti.
Ninsom recognizes that diners in Portland have grown more adventurous, and this has created opportunities for restaurateurs. He attributes part of this to Pok Pok. “I never knew that people would accept the other, true Thai food until they opened,” he said. “So that started to open my mind. People here actually wanted to experience the food the Thai way — the right way.”
This new wave of appreciation for Thai food is just as evident among Portland’s takeout restaurants as it is in the city’s fine dining establishments. Nong Poonsukwattana, a sprightly 35-year-old former employee of Ricker’s, began with one food cart in 2009, serving a single Chinese-influenced Thai poached-chicken dish: khao man gai. Since then, she has expanded the menu at Nong’s Khao Man Gai (khaomangai.com) to include several new dishes, like chicken and rice with peanut sauce and pork braised in Coca-Cola. And she now has a fleet of food carts, a brick-and-mortar location and a wholesale business involving her bottled sauces.
The quick growth came as a surprise to Poonsukwattana, who wasn’t sure how Portland-area residents would respond to an unfamiliar dish like khao man gai. “I took the risk of doing chicken and rice,” she said. “Nobody knew what it was before in Portland.”
Since Pok Pok’s opening, a growing number of restaurants have been distinguishing themselves by serving dishes from specific geographic areas of Thailand. At Khao San (khaosanpdx.com), in Portland’s Pearl District, you can find street foods like hoy joh (savory meatballs wrapped in bean curd skin and fried) from Nakhon Sawan province, and ping (chicken marinated in evaporated milk, grilled and served with a sour, spicy tamarind sauce), which is popular in Bangkok, alongside locally brewed rice lager.
Northern Thai specialties are the focus at Chiang Mai (chiangmaipdx.com), a casual takeout spot. The broad menu includes thom ma khua, a dark, pungent, smoky eggplant pâté served on rounds of sliced hard-boiled egg; the miang kam is an opportunity to create your own fresh rolls by wrapping bits of fresh ginger, toasted coconut, Thai chili, lime, shallots and dried shrimp into refreshingly bitter cha plu leaves.
Although hesitant to claim credit, Ricker recognizes that Portland has become somewhat of a microcosm for Thai cuisine in recent years. “I’d like to think that Pok Pok had something to do with it,” he said. “But if it wasn’t Pok Pok, then it would have been somebody else.”