I encourage everyone who reads on to take this with a grain of salt. Neither I or Wifey are really big on spicy hot stuff, no matter what part of the world it's from or how authentic it is. I also believe there is a special for place for dishes that are made super damn hot for the sheer fun of it.
Pok Pok is one of the better known places in Portland, a Thai restaurant operated by Andy Ricker, one of the most well-known chefs in the city (and also the owner of the Whiskey Soda Lounge, Ping, and the coming-soon Pok Pok Noi). We had put off going here not because the food wasn't supposed to be awesome, but simply because we just aren't huge spicy Thai food fans. We finally decided all the good reviews couldn't be wrong - we had to go.
Pok Pok is in a converted house on 32nd and Division. The grill is actually in a covered outdoor area where there once was a driveway and the seating is in what was once a basement (there is more upstairs for large parties). Because of the way it's set up the atmosphere almost gives one the feeling of being somewhere else, as in not a former house in Southeast Portland. I can't say it feels like Southeast Asia since I've never been there, but it has a feeling of elsewhere, if that makes any sense. It's nice.
We started off with a side dish of shrimp chips. I have no idea what these are made from, but Wifey had before somewhere else and told me I would love them.
I actually did really, really like them. They are the size of a flattened baseball, but extremely light and fluffy. And yes, they do taste shrimpy. I have no idea if there is ground shrimp in the dough or what, but they are yummy.
We also got a couple drinks. People rave about these "drinking vinegars." If it sounds odd to drink vinegar, well, it did to me too. Here is a link where they explain the background. Pok Pok's drinking vinegars come in plenty of flavors and I chose blood orange. That one is apparently quite popular.
It was pretty good, actually. Tart and sweet at the same time, it's the kind of flavors that go very well with spicy food. More on that later...
Wifey ordered a Vietnamese coffee. It came out just like this, only the water was in the top section. The white part on the bottom is sweetened condensed milk. They use Stumptown coffee and the hot water slowly drips through the grounds above to the milk below. When it's done, you take the metal part off the glass and stir it up.
We've tried this a couple of different places - Jade Tea House and An Xuyen Bakery - but neither were this good. I'd order this again - it was a tad bitter while still being very sweet. Not sure it's ideal with the food we ordered.
We ordered three dishes. The first was Kung Phao - grilled Gulf prawns.
Unfortunately that was the best picture of the prawns - the lighting wasn't that great, even with flash. As you can see they come whole, which meant peeling off the heads and shells, and there was a lime/garlic/cilantro/chile dipping sauce. The prawns were cooked nicely, but a tad bland by themselves - hence the sauce. That sauce was alternately cool and hot, with a taste I like to call "green." To me, that taste comes from fantastically fresh green things, like a fresh basil pesto, and the chiles in this sauce gave it a kick. It would also be a nice enchilada sauce.
We also ordered some jasmine rice for a side - it was good, but nothing to get too excited about.
Our second dish was Muu Sateh - grilled pork loin skewers marinated in coconut milk and turmeric.
These came with bread, a peanut sauce, and cucumber relish. The pork was excellent, and dipping them in the sauce was a fantastic for a creamy, peanutty, coconutty flavor. The relish was...hot. The cucumbers were pickled with some jalapenos (I think), and a lot of fresh cilantro. It was too hot for my taste but I ate it anyway because vegetables are good for me.
The last item we ordered was the Pok Pok Special, which consists of half of a Kai Yaang (roasted game hen stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, cilantro, and pepper), sticky rice, and papaya pok pok (spicy green papaya salad with long beans, tomatoes, dried shrimps, and a host of other things).
The game hen was fantastic. I'm not sure what kind of bird it was (tasted like chicken), but I'd definitely order it again. The two dipping sauces weren't identified, but one was sweet and spicy (sweet chile sauce?) and the other was just spicy (seemed to be soy based). The papaya pok pok? It may have been good, I have no idea. After one bite of that I literally couldn't taste anything else it seared my tongue so badly. I'd order Kai Yaang again, but I have no desire to ever have that salad.
Overall I think it was a good meal. We enjoyed ourselves, tried some new things, but Thai food still isn't something we are going to eat too often. Maybe this is too "American" of a point of view in some people's minds, but spicy hot just isn't something I ever crave - Wifey either. The artistry of creating these dishes, the obviously high quality ingredients, the beautiful presentations, and the depth of the flavors are all good reasons to go to Pok Pok. Would we go back? Would we recommend it? Yes, on both counts, but with the caveat you have to want something spicy.
I'm also fully aware my opinion of spicy doesn't match everyone else's. There are going to be people who read this and have eaten at Pok Pok who think it's not that spicy, and they will scoff at what I'm saying. I will then direct them to my opening statement; this is a review of a highly respected Thai restaurant by two people who fully admit Thai (and super spicy food in general) isn't their thing.
And despite all of that, yes, we would eat here again. Maybe not tomorrow or next week, but we would go back. For whatever that's worth.