Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pok Pok/ Whiskey Soda Lounge

3226 SE Division St, Portland, OR

I have to say that I am approaching this entry with a fair amount of trepidation given that it is only my second review of a Portland restaurant and it happens to be on Pok Pok: a restaurant that has garnered national attention and the fanatical devotion of most of Portland’s most voracious and discerning eaters. All that being said, I have now been to Pok Pok twice, both times eagerly anticipating a meal that would delight me—I have as well spent many a moment pouring over Pok Pok’s online menu— my mouth watering in anticipation of the roasted game hen, their beef flank salad, the catfish, the papaya salad, the curry noodle soup and the chicken wings so delectable that they made Food and Wine’s top ten list of 2007.

The first time I went to Pok Pok was in November when I was interviewing for my job at Timber. We spent a good hour or so in line on a cold, rainy Friday night, but thankfully had the good fortune of standing behind a couple who told us how they felt about living in Portland. They both had visited the restaurant on several occasions and also waxed rhapsodic about the wings. After being ushered into the cozy, wood Whiskey Lounge, we ordered the half roasted game hen (Kai Yaang), the papaya salad (Papaya Pok Pok), the catfish (Cha Ca La Vong), and the chicken wings (Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings). We enjoyed the hen, though I was not overwhelmed as it was a bit on the dry side. The catfish was nice, but pretty much an unmemorable dish (though I would definitely order it again to make sure, since I adore catfish). The papaya salad was tart, and mostly balanced, though a bit too spicy.

I should say that I absolutely adore spicy food and have a fairly high tolerance for heat compared to most, but I think there is a line where the heat numbs your palate and really ends up detracting from the experience. Of course, there is something strangely satisfying about this “pain” as I fist discovered at the age of 15, ordering Kung Pao chicken at a restaurant in Washington D.C., where I proceeded to gobble it up as if in a race against the Sichuan peppers. At times, while eating extremely spicy food, I am almost afraid to stop for fear that the real pain will take hold. This leads me to the (in)famous wings, which we ordered spicy(without thinking twice), only to find that our mouths had almost entirely lost feeling with the exception of the exquisite burning. Because one has to fully engage with chicken wings—no knife and fork for these--our lips came into full contact with the spice and it sadly numbed our mouths to the point that we had to keep rubbing our lips with rice to try and make the pain stop. I realize this must sound completely melodramatic and that it must have been some sort of fluke as very few people mention how spicy these can be.

The next time we went, we vowed to order them again and to not order them spicy regardless of what our server’s recommendation—and although he DID try to get us to order them spicy, we held firm. I am sure that the spice is normally fairly moderate but I didn’t want to take any chances. The wings have been described by the Oregonian as “super-crisp and caramelized and tasting like fried chicken from the dining room of paradise,” but this second time around in the warm light of a early May evening, I found them almost ridiculously sweet, as if someone had poured caramel over them in a thick mess. I was reminded of eating a caramel apple as I attempted to scrape the sugar coating off my teeth before taking each bite. Again, I am hoping that this was another off night for the wings, considering how many people I know that love them dearly. I will try them once more and if thwarted again will take it as a sure sign that my love affair with Pok Pok’s wings is simply not to be. The next dish we ordered was the flank steak salad (Neua Naam Tok) at the waiter’s suggestion. This type of Thai beef salad happens to be one of the only Thai dishes I make at home and I will say that I wound up wishing I had cooked it myself. The most glaring problem outside of the balance of flavors (I would have liked a bit more acid to balance the heat) was the fact that the steak was cooked medium well! If I desire one thing above all others in a steak salad, it is that the meat is cooked medium rare.

The last dish was nice—a simple grilled calamari (Ca Muc Nuong) with a chili lime dipping sauce and crisp lettuce to wrap it in. This was soothing after the sugar and spice of the first two dishes and we really did enjoy how clean and fresh it tasted, but it simply could not get me excited about the meal as a whole. I know I may alienate some people with this negative review, but I am truly not that hard to please. Never one to give up on a challenge, I will go a few more times to see if the stars can align and I will finally feel like I am eating “the fried chicken from the dining room of paradise”. What a lovely thought!