I'M LOOKING INTO MY BOWL of soup, vision blurred by the intense chili heat enveloping my head. I breathe heavily between slurps of broth and noodles. My face must be flushed, but there is no other recourse but to continue eating. The tangy, deep meaty flavor of the broth is unbound and expansive, punctuated with fantastic textures: a dense meatball, the crunch of marrow, and the rubbery snap of cartilage.
I've been transported from the understated dining room with its earth tones and glowing hardwood and row of gentle Buddhas. I've lost interest in the world passing by the large window that looks out onto Nob Hill. At this moment, there is nothing but soup. How did I get here?
I'd received an email from restaurateur and outspoken leader of portlandfood.org Nick Zukin. His urgency was apparent: I had to go to Red Onion, the new Thai restaurant on NW 23rd, as soon as possible. There were wonders to be had in a selection of specials normally reserved for Thai customers. Intrigued, I happily took his recommendation.
Not long after receiving the email, I found myself in Red Onion's comfortable dining room, scanning a menu of favorites not uncommon to Portland Thai restaurants. When the server returned to take my order, I politely folded my menu and asked in a conspiratorial tone, "I understand you have some special dishes not on the menu?"
The server smiled, nodded, and told me about the current "Thai kitchen specials" which change from week to week. Over the next few days, I worked my way through the astounding dishes, wondering what kind of flower arrangement I should send Zukin as thanks for the tip.
First, was a platter of Thai chicken wings and spare ribs. The wings were a good start; spicy, but not overwhelming. The meat was tender beneath a slightly crisped skin, with a nice balance of subtle sweetness, smoke, and fish sauce. The ribs, cut into small tender cubes, had a distinct fermented twang that skewed the deep savoriness of the pork.
On a later visit I was able to try a house-made pork sausage that normally comes with the platter. Lucky for me it had been made fresh moments before, and that freshness was apparent. Bright green herbs speckled the sliced sausage, and on the palate the pork carried a complex blend of kaffir lime, galangal, garlic, and lemon grass.
The spicy beef soup was another off-menu option and it only fueled my desire for more heat, prompting me to order naam prik ong. Made up of finely ground pork in a tomato-based broth, this dish is also very spicy and comes with crunchy pork rinds that slowly pop and crackle as they cool. The slightly sweet tomato and pork mélange has a subtle sweetness that is drawn out by hints of lime. It works very well with rice or wrapped in the accompanying cabbage.
The friendly and gracious staff assured me that these specials are available to anyone who knows to ask for them. But there seems to be some concern on the part of proprietor Chef Dang Boonyakamol, who formerly owned the beloved Lake Oswego restaurant Dang's Thai Kitchen, that these dishes will not be well received by American diners. Instead, his menu is populated with Thai standbys. However, I assure you that his standard dishes are anything but.
Red Onion's chicken pad see ew is the best I've had. An intense smoke and pepper augments the slightly sweet sauce coating wide noodles. The broccoli is tender, but still snappy and flavorful, and the chicken as yielding as firm tofu. The chicken was just as good in a creamy yellow curry, mixed with big chunks of potato and carrots that tasted startlingly sweet and fresh, like the glazed carrots of Sunday dinner fame.
Those carrots and the vegetables found in the breezy tropical broth of a tom kha soup, speak to the freshness of ingredients used at Red Onion. They are bright, robust, and lively. Mentioning this to the server, I was told that the chef shops for ingredients daily and that the kitchen rarely stocks up on anything beyond a day's service.
Off the menu or on the menu, Red Onion will become the place I recommend for Thai food. I only hope they realize there is no need for concern: Portland can handle all the heat and flavor that Thailand has to offer.
And it might be that the folks at Red Onion are coming around. Deep into my soup, the server came by to ask how everything was. I looked up at her, wiping the sweat from my brow. "Amazing," I replied.
She looked at me and smiled. "Good," she said. "Maybe Americans are ready."