Known for its smoky, wok-charred phat sii ew and dark, rich “boat noodles,” the restaurant impressed enough for PoMo to deem it one of the Best Restaurants of 2013. The passionate, often trying journey to open Sen Yai, Ricker’s sixth restaurant, was even the subject of a documentary, Farang (Thai for “foreigner”). The Vice Munchies film detailed how Ricker’s quarter-century Thai food obsession morphed into the Pok Pok restaurant empire (Ed note: Brooks was interviewed in the film). But, three years in, and facing grumbles about portion sizes and prices (despite the quality of ingredients and labor-intensive techniques), it was clear to Ricker that Sen Yai was not Pok Pok. “As much as I love Sen Yai, it never made money,” Ricker says. He also believes the restaurant’s situation would not have improved with Portland’s soaring rents, the rising minimum wage, and stereotypical ideas about “ethnic food” as “cheap food.” These are tough issues that many restaurateurs may face in the very near future. Closing now, he says, is preemptive.
But Sen Yai isn’t dead yet. Ricker plans to move a collection of Sen Yai favorites down the street to his nighttime Whiskey Soda Lounge (3131 SE Division). Shortly after Sen Yai closes in early May, WSL will reboot with all-day hours. Ricker will relaunch Sen Yai’s short-lived and underappreciated Thai-style breakfast menu as well as a new lunch menu of select noodle bowls, including a variety of phat Thai and Sen Yai’s terrific kuaytiaw khua pet, with crusty, wok-singed noodles and duck served over chopped lettuce. Ricker’s famed steamed pork buns will be also be back. (Frankly, it’s kind of a win for the WSL). Anyone who follows Ricker’s Instagram account knows he’s obsessing over kai thawt thien kheun, also known as “Midnight Fried Chicken” in Chiang Mai (he even hunted down the dish on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown: Thailand). Now, he’s nailed it, he says, and it’s coming to Whiskey Soda Lounge as a late night special (after 10 p.m.), served with boiled eggs, nam prik num, and pickled mustard greens. “I’m excited about this one,” says Ricker. To us, that’s an understatement.
And Sen Yai’s old digs? Nate Tilden thinks Sen Yai’s turquoise walls, chill vibe, and old-school parking lot are just right for what what he calls a “tequila taco honky-tonk rock 'n’ roll joint.” He (and three partners) bought-out Ricker’s lease to open a long-time dream: a fun, high-energy spot for great tacos, hand-pressed tortillas, and a serious stash of tequila and mescal with the lonesome wail of Willie Nelson and Hank Williams in the background. Tilden, a hard-core welder, plans to build his own charcoal-fired pit for al pastor tacos, along with an outdoor barbacoa pit for slow-cooked lamb or goat feasts. Tilden hopes to open in June, coinciding with the opening of his other new project, Bar Casa Vale. That doesn’t count OP Wurst, a hot-dog spin-off of his Olympia Provisions in the just-opened Pine Street Market.
Behind all of Tilden's projects is a posse of his friends, and Honky Tonk Taco is no exception. Owners include his Clyde Common chef, Carlo Lamagna (who will remain at his Clyde post), Olympia Provisions jack-of-all-trades Tyler Gaston, and Nick Gusikoff, Tilden’s partner at Division Street’s nearby Richmond Bar. “We met when we were teenagers,” says Tilden of Gusikoff. “He knows this street—the faces and families—and he wanted in.”
For Ricker, all of this is bittersweet. Pok Pok is still flying high, with outposts in New York and Los Angeles. He has two books in the pipeline, one on Thai drinking food, and another, ironically, on noodles. Jetting between the three cities is draining, so absorbing parts of Sen Yai into Whiskey Soda Lounge makes sense for his pocketbook and his sanity.
And yet, Ricker can’t sidestep the idea that people expect Asian or “ethnic” food to be cheap. “People say, ‘I can go to a pho restaurant and get a dish twice as big for $8.’ I can’t compete with a low-cost commodity model,” laments Ricker. A good example is Sen Yai’s yen ta fo, a beautiful combo of broth, fish balls and wide noodles (and one of my favorite dishes not making the transition over to Whiskey Soda Lounge). “It’s a great dish,” Ricker says. “But it requires two kinds of homemade stocks, four kinds of fish balls, and a vegetable that’s difficult to get part of the year. We don’t sell that many bowls. Damn, it’s too bad. Not a happy thing. But it shows how labor intensive this stuff can be. There’s no machine making all those fish balls. It’s a guy standing there using his hands to make this stuff. Unfortunately, that’s not how we perceive this kind of food in America. It’s heartbreaking to me.”