Since Jessie Aron of Ocean Age reiterated what I have heard so many times, that Pok Pok is amazing, and her favorite restaurant, I was really excited that I finally had an opportunity/excuse to go. This business gets discussed quite frequently in the OCI management classes because they had such a following that they were able to make the transition from food cart to a sit-down-dining restaurant, a feat that not many have been able to accomplish. I also have a fellow blogger that did his extern-ship there (and recently got hired on as an employee, from what I was told! Good job, Jeremy!). So we moseyed down to their location at 3226 SE Division St, Portland, OR 97202, right in the midst of the Richmond neighborhood. What is so great about this part of town is that it doesn’t attract attention to itself, like Hawthorne, Alberta, and the Pearl. It’s a secret still, and if there’s one thing that Portlanders love, it’s a good secret! Also a well kept secret in Richmond is the unmarked Kung Fu Bakery, where coincidentally(see interview with Ocean Age to catch the irony on that one), The Shins have recorded before, as well as Modest Mouse.

We were happy to find that on this glorious Sunday, there wasn’t a huge line, as I have heard can happen here from time to time(yeah!). Because if I wanted to wait in line, I could always go to the grocery store, or the DMV, right? My friend Hannah and I perused the menu posted out front, and then walked up to the “hostess stand.” We had decided that a little afternoon cocktail might serve us well when we were hypothesizing this meal, so, even though we had somewhere to be, we figured that getting seated for our hair of the dog would be a completely appropriate form of time management. I mean, we’d be waiting anyway, so why not indulge?

the night you can see it was a good show even if it was in a tiny house

In preparation for a the rain season, there are tents and tarps suspended to keep their customers dry. It reminds me of the tent city errected annually when thirty of my closest friends go camping every April twentieth to celebrate Ka’ala’s (my roommate and kick-ass friend) birthday. The very slender, all-American waitress, complete with slight southern drawl, “ya’ll,” took us around the front and up a flight of stairs to a narrow deck with three cozy tables, space heaters attached to the ceiling, Christmas lights, and vinyl insulation to lock in that comfortable feeling. The smell was almost intoxicating in itself as we approached. “I should certainly hope so,” the waitress remarked pridefully. There were two couples enjoying shared family-style food, as that is what Pok Pok recommends doing when you order there. The menu actually has a number of little pointers on it to make sure your experience there is authentic. For instance, they have an explanation on the menu regarding chopsticks, which I appreciate, as they are only to be used when eating specific noodle dishes. And guess what? They take the guess-work out of it, and provide you with them in the event that they are necessary. There is also a list of “Fine Print” located at the bottom of the menu explaining about their excellent business practices such as “buying local and natural when possible and practical,” the fact that they don’t use MSG, and that they will be happy to provide a list of ingredients in the event that you have a food allergy.

My friend and I looked over the drink menu and I was yet again, reminded of one of the many reasons I love Portland: the appreciation of mixology. Someone took the time to create interesting drinks with different flavors and ingredients, some of which I’ve never seen before, and they sounded delicious rather than slightly intimidating. Even though I was tempted to get the Berry Shrub (which consists of berry drinking vinegar, brandy, and soda) I stuck to the initial plan of a Bloody Mary. The Pok Pok Bloody Mary was complex and potent on a number of levels with a hint of sweetness from the tomato and chilies. It’s made with a pestle and mortar, maybe my favorite piece of equipment in the kitchen, pounding Thai chilies and aromatics, and then the cocktail is garnished with a full sprig of perky Thai basil and a whole un-pitted olive. I think the garnish threw Miss Hannah for a bit of a loop, as she had never had an olive with the pit still inside, so I was just happy she didn’t chip a tooth! It was delicious, and the Thai chilies left a resonating heat in your mouth for hours later. I think my only complaint would be the half-inch of debris in the bottom of the glass. DO NOT USE YOUR STRAW! Take advantage of that salted rim and sip the drink, or you will end up like my associate, with a mouth-full of chili pepper seeds.

Pok Pok Bloody Mary

While we sipped on our beverages we laughed about the previous evening’s activities,consisting of a house show, and an after-party. I would like to take this opportunity to say, when you haven’t been given the OK to come and meet with your friends yet, don’t take it upon yourself to show up on the front step of someone’s house that you don’t know WITH SEVEN OTHER PEOPLE! As we talked about this phenomenon we sent down an order for the restaurants name-sake, the Papaya Pok Pok, minus the salted, fermented black crab, and an order of  Phat Si Ew Muu. The waitress hinted that we probably would want more food, and once we received our order, we realized that she was right. The price however was the real reason that we were shying away from an additional item. Our two cocktails plus the two dishes off the lunch menu totaled out to almost forty dollars out of my companion’s purse, and even though she was happy to pay it, I was a little embarrassed for picking such pricey lunch fare. When food is in smaller portions, and prepared well, it is worth the extra dough, generally. So we just agreed that if this establishment lived up to all the hype,  it would be money well spent, and we’d be happy to do it again.

After finishing our firewater, we headed downstairs to wait for the order. As usual, I had overbooked, and we were supposed to be meeting up with our other two lady friends to go to the Goodwill “Bins” and dig through mass amounts of odds and ends that the racketeering  corporation (how do you get a couch for free and sell it for one hundred dollars?)would just be throwing away. They had an outdoor grill that they were cooking on as well as a shack-kitchen complete with attractive young men dicing, chopping, and cooking away. Another very fashionable waitress, whose necklace I have serious accessory envy for, chatted with us about the restaurant, my aforementioned friend, and the blog review I’d be doing, and was genuinely interested in what we had to offer in the way of conversation, not just doing her job, you know? I’d have to say, all in all, the service was excellent and sincere, and I like the ambiance of the establishment. As I remarked before, it has reminds me of a  festival, with the tented ceilings, space heaters, the outdoor grill going, and the laid-back-yet-knowledgable staff of pseudo-hippies.

I am looking over my shoulder as I say this, almost like you do before telling a controversial joke, but the food that Hannah and I got, we agreed, was kind of “meh.” The Phat Si Ew Muu was delicious, but not epic. The noodles were cooked to perfection, had a great consistency and flavor with the black soy sauce, and the broccoli was done immaculately! Whoever was working the wok that day did good, to say the least. I was particularly excited about the vegetable being done so well because while chatting on the drive there, I had mentioned how I practically despise over-cooked broccoli. It’s one of my favorites, and many of the places where I have gotten it as a component of the meal, have cooked it down to green textured mush. I’ve had this dish at a number of other Thai restaurants, and it’s always pretty good, I was just expecting more here, which I think may have been the issue. It’s like when someone tells you about this movie that you have to see; it’s amazing, life-changing, phenomenal! And then you see it, and there is no way it could possibly live up to your expectations…at this point, no movie could! So you leave the theater with this hole in your gut, irritated that you just spent however much money to feel so much less than satisfied. That is how I felt about the food that I ate. I may very well be shunned by some of my peers for saying so, but it just wasn’t the epic culinary experience that I wanted it to be.

papaya pok pok

The Papaya Pok Pok was also pretty good. It was very spicy, although not as spicy as those Bloody Marys, and I felt a little bit like it was missing…something. Some kind of sweetness maybe? We ordered the sticky rice with it as recommended, and that was yummy, and definitely added to the dish, but wasn’t everything that it needed. The peanuts in it were a nice touch, and did a great deal for the texture, in fact, Hannah and I were practically fighting over them with our forks. I just wonder if you can really say the dish is worth eight dollars? I suggest that if you like spicy, sour type foods you try this out though! It just wasn’t to my particular taste, and although I can appreciate the complexity of the flavors in the concoction, and the technique in its preparation, I probably wouldn’t get it again. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just not my cup of tea. It reminds me of coleslaw in a way, only instead of cabbage, it is comprised of strips of papaya. I should have, rather than getting the restaurant’s name-sake, got a dish that I am admittedly unfamiliar with, ordered something more appealing to me and my personal tastes. Ce-la vie!

Aside from my extraordinarily high expectations, I think my experience was really different from those that have this as a high place holder on their list of local restaurants because I got take out. We didn’t stay and get the full experience. However, this establishment did used to be a cart, so technically EVERYTHING was to-go. Would I get a drink there again? Definitely. Would I eat there again? Right after pay-day, ya, I’d give it another try. Would I recommend it to my friends? Yes, and I’ll tell you why. Even if my experience here wasn’t the end-all be-all of  Thai cuisine, they have REAL Thai, made with traditional preparations. It is made precisely the way that street vendors in the native country season and cook it, and someone involved in the creation of that menu is travelling to Thailand on a regular basis to stay current, as evidenced by the suggestions in italics on the menu. Also their business practices are sustainable, and responsible, and the staff is awesome. I’m interested to see what it’s like the next time I go in!

So I just wanted to say thank you to the awesome staff at Pok Pok, particularly the guy that took our food all the way up the stairs looking for me and Hannah, even though we were right outside the kitchen. I also would like to know where the waitress got that faceted turquoise necklace, because I want one!!! And thank you to Jessie and the other members of Ocean Age for letting me piggyback off your popularity and fan-base! Now send some more people my way, and I’ll do the same!


You stay classy, Portland!


  1. Captain says:

    I think you should have left the crab in…..salted anything is good even if fermented….sounds scary, but I’ve never been disappointed….then again you were having a hair of the dog……….anyways I totally want to check this place out with TJ cuz pickled dishes, fermented, salted etc…..are all ways of preserving food on Guam too….actually Chamorros and Philippino’s alike that I’ve met still love using those methods even though they have gained a financial and technological capability to leave them behind. I’m excited to try authentic Thai still following the same love for preparing food those ways….although TJ eats quite a bit it might take a few bucks to fill that man up! =)
    Thanks for the post Lady!

    • The crab went with the papaya salad, and it wasn’t like you were picking the crab, which is what I wanted, apparently you ate the bad boy whole! And the waitress gave us a little disclaimer. You know me, I’m generally down to try anything, but ya….when the waitress is warning me, I’ll take a step back. I’d love to hear what TJ has to say about it though! If he likes it! I might be willing to give it a shot. You’ll have to ask him for me if he’s ever had fermented sea-cucumber intestines, Harold McGee, the food/science author, said he quite enjoyed them at the symposium I went to on the 8th at the Art Institute.

  2. Katie says:

    gotcha……You should ask him with me so it is less confusing hear say with what was really what =)

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