If you haven't eaten at Pok Pok, odds are you've at least heard of it: In the past year and a half, the tiny shack with the modest menu has garnered enthusiastic props from every publication in town (including this one). Owner and head chef Andy Ricker churns out Thai cuisine with the attention to detail of a true culinary obsessive, and his growing legion of fans speaks to the success of that single-minded dedication.
Building on the success of Pok Pok, Ricker's two-pronged assault on the Portland palate commenced in earnest last fall, with the opening of the Whiskey Soda Lounge. While the shack still offers a limited takeout menu and outdoor dining, a ramp a few feet away leads you down into the adjacent restaurant, which boasts a full menu of ever-changing items based on dishes Ricker discovers during his annual trips to Thailand. The food bears little resemblance to that found in other Portland Thai restaurants—there's no "ketchup pad Thai" here. On the Whiskey Soda Lounge menu, you might find a marinated steak salad; Dungeness crab served over a stir-fry of Chinese celery, onions, and egg; baby octopus skewers; or the wildly popular Kai Yaang (stuffed roasted game hen).
I recently met with Ricker to talk about Pok Pok, the new restaurant, and the trials and tribulations of introducing a relatively unexplored cuisine to the Portland dining world. One challenge, he told me, is that there is a right and wrong way to eat his food, and diners who approach a meal without attending to the rules risk missing the point. Unlike the stuffy, ritualized rules of fine dining, guidelines at the Whiskey Soda Lounge (which are explained on the menu) are designed to help diners enjoy their food to the fullest.
First, it's all about the mix 'n' match. "You don't get a plate that has your protein, your starch, your vegetables, and that's yours and nobody else gets it," says Ricker. Instead, "order a number of different things... that are going to complement each other." Dishes are meant to be shared among everyone at the table, and paired with bites of rice—that way, the strong flavors enhance one another, instead of overwhelming the palate. The pungent Neua Naam Tok, or beef salad, for example, could quickly overwhelm with its sour/salty pungency, but rice tempers the strong flavors. There are rules about silverware, too: Use your fork to push food into your spoon, and eat with your spoon. Also, feel free to use your hands.
Ricker acknowledges that all of this can be difficult to communicate to diners, but it's worth making the effort to play along: The food at the Whiskey Soda Lounge is not only intriguing, it's damn near chemically addictive. The bar, too, churns out some simple but remarkable concoctions, like a salted plum vodka Collins or the house gin and tonic with kaffir lime leaf.
The speakeasy-like restaurant itself is quite small (while sitting at the bar, I've been acutely conscious of my ass looming over the table directly behind me), and the wait for dinner can be a bit long. It's worth it, though, as anyone who's been there will assure you: Keep an open mind, play by the rules, and you're in for one of the finest dining experiences Portland has to offer.