I never thought it would happen to me, but I can’t deny it. I have joined a cult. I am all in, just another devotee of Pok Pok – PDX branch.
They screen in a fairly devious way. It starts with the scary menu - all those strange combinations of vowels and consonants – Aahaan Phiseht, Het Paa Naam Tak – who talks like that? Who could order that? Yes, sure, the English words underneath are meant to reassure you that nothing too odd is going on here. No, really, they are salads, they are side dishes.
And then it happens. You order the chicken wings, because that is the one dish you actually get. Okay, they are Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings ; but they were made by a guy named Ike, how much more benign can you get than Ike? But the truth is they are just a gateway food. Life changing chicken wings. Seriously life changing chicken wings. You will never look at food quite the same. I promise you that.
When I first moved to the Northwest, low these many years ago, the joke was that you could get any type of food you wanted in Seattle. As long as it was Thai. I quickly became bored with greasy Pad Thai and menus that offered the same variations on red, green and yellow curry. Most were so spicy that any actual flavor (if there was any actual flavor) was lost along with most of the surface area of your tongue.
So I was in no hurry to try Pok Pok. And besides – the vowels, the consonants. The first trip was a little over a year and a half ago. A birthday lunch that included a salad of grilled long eggplant and a Thai chili dressing that was incredible, corn on the cob grilled with fresh coconut milk that took corn to a whole new place and of course, those wings. Oh, those wings.
I’ve been back a couple of times. Like a good devotee, I always bring in new recruits. “Try the wings.” I say with a smile, knowing how this works.
Last Thursday I brought Sharon and Mitch. There were cocktails at the Whiskey Soda Lounge while we waited. Cocktails with drinking vinegar, another Pok Pok hook. We were an adventurous trio. Sure, of course, wings. But there was also Hoi Thawt – a crispy ‘broken’ crepe with steamed mussels, bean sprouts and Sri Racha sauce.
There was a wing bean salad, all crispy and fresh with just a hint of heat. There was the a fore mentioned Het Paa Naam Tak, a forest mushroom salad that is wonderfully meaty and satisfying. There was jasmine rice to round it all out. This was serious comfort food in a seriously different way.
Everything is shared, which really is the best way to have dinner with friends. None of this my plate, your plate, stuff. Just lots of passing around dishes and digging in. It makes the meal communal rather than compartmentalized. Everything about Pok Pok seems to be focused on sharing, on being neighborly.
Every time I have been there, someone at the table next to me, or seated next to me at the bar, has made a recommendation. Yes, these are the glass noodles – you have to try them! Or no, these are the pork skewers in coconut mile and turmeric (and, I might add, about the only dish on the menu with peanut sauce), incredible!
Yes, you are cheek by jowl in this place. It is not the sort of restaurant where you go to have a deep, private conversation. You don’t take a date here for a quiet romantic meal. This is a place where you go to enjoy the company of friends, where you laugh a lot, where conversation is punctuated by murmurs of appreciation for the food you’re eating. It is a boisterous, informal, friendly place.
So I admit it. I am a member of the cult. I even have my eye on the cookbook. Because, well, Pok Pok.