When I first looked at the menu for Manao—the new Thai restaurant from Pok Pok alum "Chef Chew"—I worried that it might suffer from a similar problem. Pok Pok's Andy Ricker is as close to a household name as Portland's recent culinary scene has produced (and Chef Chew's given name, Ekkachai Sakkayasukkalawong, to my ear, didn't have the ring of a "household name"). I'm sure in Northern Thailand, the menu similarities wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but here, the inclusion of green papaya salad and chicken wings was the equivalent of Matt LeBlanc's laugh-track-inducing leers.
While Pok Pok fans might find some resemblance, one never gets the feeling that Chef Chew is trying to trade in on his former boss' brand; he's clearly doing his own thing, and focusing on making bold, flavorful Thai food that reaches beyond the most familiar pad thais and curries.
Manao doesn't feign being fancy. The ambiance and atmosphere are strip mall through and through; there's no pretension about it—big open dining room, vinyl tablecloths, and Ikea lighting. The presentation of the dishes is far more utilitarian than aesthetic.
For my first meal at Manao, I went with some of my staples from other restaurants in town that are doing Northern Thai dishes (Pok Pok, Chiang Mai, and Red Onion). I started with the green papaya salad ($8), which was just as painfully spicy as I hoped it would be. It wasn't quite as crisp as I expected, didn't taste quite as fresh, but the dressing—fish sauce, garlic, lime, palm sugar, and tamarind water—was bold and all its own. As an entrée, I went with the Khao Soi Kai ($10.50), a very popular curry noodle soup with egg noodles and chicken on the bone. It's served with pickled mustard green, shallot, lime, and topped with crispy noodles. Manao's was good, but the broth isn't my favorite in town. A tad bland, and a bit too thin. Still the chicken was moist and full of flavor, and the mustard greens, which I adore, were plentiful.
Whether or not Manao matches up with the heaviest of hitters in its field is kind of beside the point. Chef Chew has opened up a quiet, modestly priced neighborhood Thai spot that's playing with interesting dishes and big, bold flavors. While he clearly didn't open up a destination spot to compete with his old boss for New York Times inches, it's only food writers like myself that care about such a distinction. Whether it's a spinoff or a program all its own, I'm rooting for Manao's success. -TONY PEREZ
This place is closed.
7202 SE Milwaukie,
Hours: Mon-Thurs 11:30am-3pm and 4:30-9pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-3pm and 4:30-9:30pm
Asian, Thai, Fusion