For most of my life, I have been what tolerant people call “picky” and what normal people call “insufferable” when it came to food. My tastes were simple, even classic, American fare. I would gladly eat hamburgers, pizza, and macaroni and cheese. I was sure that these were fine pillars of any healthy diet, and refused to eat anything else except for variations on the same. You couldn’t pay enough in solid gold for me to eat a vegetable, and the prospect of eating something green that wasn’t Jell-O led to more than one physical confrontations.
Even when I moved here to Portland, the habit stayed. Now I could fake eating healthy at the upscale and gourmet pizzerias and local burger shops where you could show you cared about your body and the world by eating "good for you" organic junk food. I was spared the odd dinner here and there because invariably there would be some dressed up dish on the menu whose ingredients were a form of pasta and cheese sauce. The idea of eating exotic cuisine was completely alien to me.
The one seeming exception to this has always been Thai/Chinese food. Raised in a good Jewish home, one of the tenets of life (besides Manischewitz), was enjoying Asian food on a regular basis. But even on these menus I could find a chicken and rice meal that was just bland enough to fit my pallet. Last night, everything changed when we decided to go to Pok Pok.
Pok Pok was originally a small tin shack pumping out inspired Thai take out of charcoal roasted chicken and simple healthy salads with a kick to the residents near SE Division. The newer addition, the Whiskey Soda Lounge, is a small dimly lit dining area that while crammed with diners still feels intimate yet spacious. Traditional Thai coffee is available to start, or with a shot of brandy for “grown up” style. The menu is eclectic and exciting, with delicious combinations in each dish and a helpful hint about what side would help with the flavor or heat.
I scanned the single page menu for any old favorite, only to find no easy or americanized option. Stuck between two dishes, I asked the waiter to make my decision. He was very knowledgeable and after taking the orders of the rest of the table, convinced me to choose based on what would round out the tastes of the other meals.
We only had to wait a few minutes before our food was delivered hot and beautifully arranged. I had the Muu Paa Kham Waan, a plate of boar collar rubbed with various herbs and spiced served in a subtle, spicy chili-lime-garlic sauce. The spicy mushroom salad and Tom Yam Naam Khon Thaleh (a perfectly served seafood soup) surprised all of us at the table in how the heat of the spice never interfered with the flavor of the dish.
My dinner was served with iced mustard greens to, as the waiter said, “Cleanse the palate and enhance the flavor of the meat”. I nodded politely, knowing they wouldn’t leave the plate. However, after the first bite and the initial rush of heat I instinctively reached for what can only be described as a tree leaf and chewed slowly. The cold, crisp green did exactly what it was supposed to, spreading the flavor around my mouth and cooling the searing heat at the same time. Everyone at the table had stopped eating and was staring at me. I had something green, not a new flavor of Slurpee, hanging from my mouth.
A threshold had been breached, and I spent the rest of the meal trying new things I never would have looked at twice before. The myriad of flavors in our dishes were blended expertly, and none of the intense heat felt forced or unnecessary. We finished up our meal with two desserts, the coconut ice cream sandwich and a very interesting bourbon ice cream float that tasted like a booze-cicle dream come true.
With every entrée priced at around $10, this meal was revolutionary without the normal regret when the check comes. Another perk we found was that unlike so much other Thai food, we remained full for the rest of the evening. So thank you Pok Pok, my absurdly neglected diet is forever in your debt.
Pok Pok is located at 3226 SE Division and is open for lunch and dinner normal hours, with take out available all day. Their phone number is 503-232-1387. You can find out more about them at: http://pokpokpdx.com/index.php