WHEN POK POK OPENED on SE Division Street in 2005, the Starbucks-style ubiquity of the city’s other Thai restaurants was instantly thrown into sharp relief: suddenly there was Pok Pok’s version of Thai food (well worth the customary 90-minute wait on the sidewalk) and then there was everyone else’s—safe, watered-down dishes that all seemed to be carbon copies of each other. But, slowly, a few eateries have begun to find a place in between, making their own mark with unique regional menus. One relative newcomer is Mee Sen Thai Eatery, a low-key neighborhood find whose street food and traditional noodle soups consistently draw a buzzing weekend crowd to the funky North Portland spot.
The dimly lit den of reclaimed wooden planks and mismatched particleboard tables fashioned from recycled bicycle wheels looks just as comfortably at home on the hip North Mississippi Avenue as it would on a roadside in Bangkok. And while the menu features a few familiar standbys, such as pad thai and chicken satay, the heart of Mee Sen lies in its rare noodle dishes. Order the house specialty, guay tiew, and mix and match your choice of bouncy noodles in combinations like the Thai-style stewed chicken, served in a sugary soy chicken broth, or the light-as-air fishballs in vegetable broth with red bean sauce. And the khao soi gai—two chicken drumsticks submerged in a curried coconut-milk soup, all topped with crispy egg noodles—is an unctuous and subtly sweet runner-up to Pok Pok’s popular version. (And you don’t have to wait 90 minutes to dig in.)