IF WE'VE LEARNED anything from television-sitcom spinoffs, it's that the most successful ones don't lean too heavily on their predecessor. Sure there are cheers when Sam Malone shows up on Frasier, sure there are some echoes in the writing and Lilith's as icy as ever, but it's set 3,000 miles away from Boston in a wildly different atmosphere; instead of a fat guy and a mailman, we laugh at some pussy Jungian shrink and a loveable Jack Russell terrier. Joey, on the other hand, pretty much reprised his role as a dude who says dumb shit, likes to bang chicks, and eats Italian food.
Of course, banging chicks and saying dumb shit is the hallmark of an entire genre of comedy—Joey's problem was that it was too close to Friends without producing quite the same quality of generic, predictable drivel.
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.
My next trip in, I tried harder to gauge some of the house favorites, instead of relying on my own—and I was pleasantly surprised. My favorite dish was the Kai Lui Suan ($12), a grilled chicken salad with shallots, mint, sawtooth (similar to a cilantro, but heartier), green onion, tomatoes, toasted rice powder, and a dressing of fish sauce, lime, and ground chili. Thank god it's served with sticky rice, because the dish is tremendously spicy. The herbs balanced nicely with the dressing, and the chicken soaked up all of it.
The waitress recommended a pumpkin curry as well. The more understated flavor was a relief after a bite of the Kai Lui Suan (my date insists that I recommend mixing the two together for maximum satisfaction). The chicken—mostly dark meat—was so tender I could almost will it off the bone. The chunks of pumpkin were large and soft, and the curry itself had a rich coconut flavor.
Lastly, we had to try the chicken wings ($12), which were reminiscent of Pok Pok's, but clearly a different recipe. While there's some similarity in flavor, the wings weren't dominated by the heavy fish sauce taste (which I'm not saying is a bad thing, by any means); there was almost an herbal flavor to it. The texture differed as well. Much lighter, and the outside wasn't as caramelized.
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.