Like Ava Gene’s, Pok Pok is a destination restaurant on SE Division’s Restaurant Row, and definitely a place to try if you want a hit of Portland’s trendsetting food scene. Pok Pok helped start the foodie trend and it’s been hot (literally, given the spices used in the cooking) from the very beginning. This is not a dress-up, white-tablecloth place; it’s fairly small, opens right onto the street, and you sit at crowded picnic tables with a lot of noise around you. And guess what—that’s part of why everyone loves it. The other part, of course, is the food. Many of the dishes are inspired by Thai street food, and the combination of tastes and spices is a good incentive for ordering a variety of plates and sharing. Pok Pok is the most authentic Thai restaurant I've eaten at outside of Thailand. Not only are the flavors of the dishes here some of the most vibrant and exotic you'll ever taste, but the whole atmosphere conjures up casual restaurants on the beaches of Thailand. Get the kai yang (grilled chicken) and khao man som tam (green papaya salad) for an absolute classic straight off the streets of Bangkok. Other specials are the papaya served with salted black crab; and the must-try chicken wings, marinated in fish sauce and sugar and then deep fried. The waitstaff is patient and knowledgeable, and can provide guidance on spice levels (ranging from “not there” to “tongue on fire”). Some people fault this place for serving skimpy portions, but it's the same way in Thailand. Just order another dish; you'll be glad you did. Tip: Pok Pok doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait for a table (you can call ahead and get your name on the wait list).
While you’re waiting for that coveted table to open up, enjoy a cocktail at Whiskey Soda Lounge, Pok Pok’s bar across the street from the restaurant. Pok Pok has opened new restaurants in Northwest and Northeast Portland. At Pok Pok NW (1639 NW Marshall St.; [tel] 971/351-1946; Mon–Fri 5–10pm, Sat–Sun 11:30am–10pm), you can reserve a table; at Pok Pok Noi (1469 NE Prescott; [tel] 503/287-4149; daily 11:30am–10pm), you can’t. They’ve opened a restaurant in New York, too, but that’s for someone else to check out.