IT COMES DOWN to this: I want Bang Bang to take a double shot of tequila, follow it with a swig of shochu, and finish with a small pour of Fernet, neat—then go back to the kitchen.
It should be obvious by now that I have a strong affection for both drinking and Asian foods, particularly when combined. I don't demand "authenticity," but I do demand spice, cocktails, and a liberal but steady hand with a deep fryer.
When Bang Bang opened in February, chef Adam Kaplan and Aalto Lounge owners Kate and Alex Wood promised a restaurant and bar focused on bowls of Thai curries and drinking snacks that would stay open until 2 am on the weekends.
"It's not by any stretch authentic Thai food or street food," Kaplan told Eater PDX at the time.
Several months later, we're left asking: What is it then?
I'm not sure even the owners know. Already, Bang Bang has cut its hours back to midnight on weekends, and it continues to tweak the menu to eliminate problem dishes (and jettison good ones—RIP, fried Scotch quail eggs and roasted banana tapioca parfait). During my first visit in March, a cacophony of ambient conversation bouncing off the narrow walls coupled with too-loud background music meant my friend and I could barely hear each other over our tiny two-seat table. My most recent visit last week revealed a nearly empty dining room.
It's not that menu offerings are bad; it's just that the cuisine doesn't make a statement, or it's clumsily put together. There are good elements among the so-so, and hopefully Kaplan can build on those to create something with a real bang.
Bang Bang should start by revamping the papaya salad ($8), which of all the tasters was best enjoyed by my backyard chickens. This is because Feather Locklear & Co. abhor spiciness and herbs, both severely lacking in this dour version of a dish that's meant to send you scrambling for a beer. The small serving of charred long beans ($8) were dry and unpalatable.
The curries are also strange, but inoffensive. All the ingredients are served in one unadorned dish with a pitcher of curry sauce to pour over the top. I do not know why this is a thing, except maybe to torture the dishwashers. Mostly, the curries we tried lacked heat and balance. The green curry was changed from a meat-heavy dish with pork belly and sausage to a vegetarian one ($14) with crispy tofu and long beans. Either way, the flavor was a barely jazzed-up coconut milk.
The same for the red curry ($16)—it's also too mild, but topped with two gorgeous crispy duck legs coated in sweet and sour sauce. I wish I hadn't poured my pitcher of curry on them before I tasted them. The sweetness of those legs is terrible with the curry, but holy hell, I'd love to see them in some sort of bastardized Chinese/Thai fusion dish.
Our best visit came late one night after a few glasses of wine at a friend's house. We showed up shortly before midnight, unaware the restaurant had trimmed back their hours. The affable hostess sat us anyway, keeping with the friendly welcome we got each time before. With a small buzz going already, the solid cocktail list (available all hours and reasonably priced at $8-11) and late-night menu combined for some real treats.
The tendon puffs with house dried curry—like pork rinds but bigger and better—were a great complement to the Chef's Reward ($8), with Monopolowa, Campari, grapefruit juice, and Jacobsen's sea salt. The Bang Bang Sando ($10) was a bit heavy, but made for the best drunk food I've had there to date. It was a well-crisped shaved pork and curried eggplant sandwich topped with spicy cheese sauce, shallots, and picked greens. It's massive, easily a project for two or more.
The fried spring rolls—puffed-up golden rice paper surrounding fish-sauce-infused crab and sausage ($8/$5 late night)—were addictive. Late night also has a $4 generous pour of Fernet, earning much good feeling from me.
This direction, I feel, is Bang Bang's higher purpose: a restaurant beholden to no convention and inciting many rounds of toasts. (Of course, there's also Smallwares' "inauthentic Asian" down the block already doing that pretty damn well.) Still, dearest Bang Bang: Funk it the hell up.
Open daily 5 pm–midnight. Takeout available. No reservations, but call ahead for large parties.