Pok, Pok … Who’s There? The Best SE Asian Cuisine in Town!

pok-pok-chicken-wingsOne of my favorite books of all time is Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir that chronicles author Elizabeth Gilbert’s year-long journey of self-discovery in three distinct destinations – Italy, India and Indonesia – and how she picked up wonderful treasures of life in food, spirituality and romance along the way. The book is part food and travel guide and part spirituality self help, with a perfect amount of chick-lit humor. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years, you must have read the book, or at least have heard of it. If you haven’t had the chance to pick it up, I hope you would come out of the cave and give it a read. It really gave me a greater appreciation for life and its beauty, and the urge to fly to Naples to taste that magical pizza!

Among the many interesting life theories she introduced in the book, one that intrigued me the most was the connection between the “word of the city,” and “your word.” She wrote, while she was in Rome, that each city has a unique word that personifies the characteristics of the place. Similarly, we, too, have the word that describes who we are and where we are in our lives. If the word of the city and your word fit, you know that you belong there. For Gilbert, Rome’s word was “sex” which didn’t necessarily jibe with hers, which explained why she felt slightly out of place there. (She said that, for her, the word for New York was “achieve,” and Los Angeles was “succeed,” which I thought were very interesting.)

While in Portland, I thought about what the word for this city would be for me. I thought it would be “leisure” but realized that I come up to Portland mostly for wok so that would be … no. I thought it would be, quite simply, “eat,” because that’s what I love to do here but that’s not all I enjoy. After thinking about it for a while, I thought, maybe “nourish” would be the appropriate word.

Portland provides me with the nourishment with dishes that incorporate fresh, organic, sustainable ingredients that cleanse and energize my entire body. I think I like checking out restaurants and eat everything in sight when I’m here (and I really do) not necessarily because I’m hungry but because I can totally feel the love and care each chef puts into his or her dishes and makes me feel more in synch with nature, which is exactly what I crave for in my culinary journey, as well as life in general.

In addition to the nutritious replenishment, the “nourish” also comes in the form of friendship of my best friend Maya, who lives here in Portland, whose sense of humor, kindness and generosity truly satisfy my soul. And when the two nourishing forces meet, I end up in a very good place in life. That’s why I’m so happy when I’m here. I feel like I belong here.

So … looking to depart from the straightforward Northwest cuisine for a change, May and I decided to venture out to Pok Pok, one of Portland’s most beloved restaurants that specializes in authentic, street-vender inspired South East Asian food (mostly Thai and Vietnamese). Culinary critic’s darling, Pok Pok is often dubbed as the best restaurant in Portland and we were dying to try the food behind all the buzz.

When we arrived at the restaurant around 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, we were awaited by about 20 people in front of us with 45-plus minutes wait, but we were willing to wait in the freezing rain for the taste of its famous chicken wings (pictured on top). The wait wasn’t as painful under the heat lamp and we spent the time looking through (and trying to figure out) the extensive offerings of good Asian eats! There was a little walk-up counter outside where customers can order food to go – a wonderful idea for those who’s not so keen on waiting in long line. The offerings at the to-go walk up is limited, but you can still get some of the most popular menus such as Muu Sateh (pork loin skewers) and Kai Yaang (roasted natural game hen rubbed with lemongrass and other spices).

We were able to secure a table inside the dim and cozy restaurant. The place was small but still provided the sense of privacy and comfort but the table was still jammed packed with all the entrees we ordered.

Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings (pictured above): Fresh natural chicken wings marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep fried, tossed in caramelized Phu Quoc fish sauce and garlic and served with Vietnamese table salad. Our daytime grill cook Ich Truong’s recipe from his home in Vietnam. OMG, the best chicken EVER 🙂

pok-pok-noodle

Khao Soi Kai, Northern Thai mild curry noodle soup made with our secret curry paste recipe, natural chicken on the bone and house-pressed fresh coconut milk. Served with pickled mustard greens, shallots, crispy yellow noodles and roasted chili paste. Chiang Mai specialty, with Burmese origins.

pok-pok-garnish

And the garnish that came with the noodle.

pok-pok-lam-skewer

Chinese Muslim Lamb Skewers, Chinese Muslim style Domestic lamb leg skewers rubbed with salt, chile powder and aromatic spice, charcoal-grilled and served with Little T’s flat bread and a tomato-cucumber salad with caraway.

pok-pok-to-go-counter

(The walk-up window for all to-go orders)

Maya, who has been to Bali many times, mentioned that the city is filled with charming street vendors and food shacks like Pok Pok, which shows that this place, contrary to its soaring mainstream popularity, has remained true to its philosophy of providing no-frill South East Asian cuisines to Portland foodies. I imagined that this would be a place Gilbert ate during her stay in Indonesia where she found … dare I say it … (spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book) … love.

Pok Pok

3226 SE Dividion, Portland, OR

★★★★★

(P.S: Please excuse my lame, “knock-knock” knock-off joke attempt in th title.)

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