I didn't get to spend much time in Portland on a recent whirlwind weekend-long road trip from Seattle down to the Oregon wine country, but I did get a chance to stop by Sen Yai, Andy Ricker's new noodle shop just down the street from Pok Pok. It's only been open for two months and is sandwiched between a couple of construction zones—pretty easy to miss from the street until you're right on top of it. On the day we visited, Pok Pok was packed with a 45 minute wait to get in, while Sen Yai still had most of its tables free.
Ever since tasting Ricker's food at Pok Pok New York last year, I've been a devoted fan. The man knows his stuff, and it's apparent even before the real food starts arriving.
Take the condiment caddy set out on all of the plastic gingham-topped picnic tables in both the outdoor and indoor seating areas, for instance. Most Thai-style noodle joints I've seen in New York will tend to carry a trio of some sort of hot chili sauce, vinegar, and fish sauce. Ricker goes with the more authentic Bangkok quartet of fish sauce spiked with plenty of Thai chilies, mildly spiced vinegar, dried ground Northern Thai chili powder, and raw sugar, representing the salty, sour, hot, and sweet flavor combination that is the backbone of Thai cuisine. Condiment caddies like this make me excited for the meal to come, as do good drinks.
With a car to drive and a plane to catch, I didn't get a chance to try any of the cocktails (for the record, I find the cocktails at Pok Pok to be a little underwhelming given the quality of the food), but both the drinking vinegar and the condensed milk-free Thai iced tea with lime that we tasted were bracingly refreshing.
The food menu is divided into three sections; the Soup Noodles range from $9 to $14 and come with a choice of five different styles of noodle. There's the eponymous fat, rice-based Sen Yai and dried instant ramen-style noodles, not to mention seven different broth and topping combinations.
It was one of Portland's rare hot and sunny days, so we opted for what seemed like the lightest of the hot noodle options. Yen Ta Fo ($12) is a big bowl of hot and sour broth flavored with tofu and tomato. Eating it is a bit of a treasure hunt as you search through the thin rice noodles for shoots of water spinach, tender strips of squid, bouncy fish balls, and deep fried tofu puffs. Every once in a while you stop to take a bite out of a big-ol' hunk of white coral mushroom that has the frilly, broth-catching layers of good seaweed.
I used the condiments to doctor it up to that magic point, where it's just hot enough that your mouth starts burning unless you fill it with another bite soon after you've swallowed your first.
Wok-fried noodles make up the second third of the menu with a half dozen variations, including the Phat Thai that we enjoyed at his New York outpost, and a stellar version of Phat Sii Ew ($11), the smoky-sweet dish of wide steamed rice noodles stir fried with eggs, broccoli, and pork (theirs comes from Carlton Farms).
Noodle-haters (like my strange wife) will find a bit of consolation in the fried rice section. Classic minced chicken and long beans with holy basil and a crisply-fried egg is a lunchtime staple all over Thailand. Their regular stir-fried jasmine rice gets flavored with a choice of crab, pork, or sausage. Both are serious one-plate meals with smoky, subtly flavored, distinctly-grained rice and hearty toppings.
Fans of Pok Pok's stir-fried water spinach will be happy to see that the dish makes a reappearance here as one of three sides. We opted for the vegan version, which was plenty meaty with its vegan fish sauce substitution.
Even more exciting might be the breakfast section of the menu, which features a few of the same no-holds-barred full-on noodle dishes, along with a couple of egg dishes, a rice porridge with preserved radish and fish balls, and sides of crullers and pork-stuffed steamed buns. I'll have to make sure to stop by next time I'm in Portland. I'm a sucker for crisply fried eggs.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.