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A spread from PaaDee's Issan menu. 

Bring on the fish-sauce funk. Hello duck laab, teeming with duck liver and crispy crackles of duck skin for good measure. PaaDee’s new twice-weekly experiment, Issan, has arrived with great promise and a declaration: “We serve uncompromising Northeastern Thai food.”

Finally! A Portland menu that is not willfully inauthentic

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PaaDee's Earl Ninsom.

PaaDee’s Issan project (available Monday and Tuesday nights, 5–10 p.m.) kicked off quietly on June 19. The menu is small and focused: salads/relishes, laab, soups, fried and grilled dishes, and no more than a handful per category. About a dozen PaaDee favorites still anchor the list for pad kee mao and khao soi loyalists. And while we expected Monday’s debut to have the usual opening night jitters, the food, lashed with chiles, mint, shallots, and backed by farm-fresh vegetables, is already more interesting than most Portland Thai eateries.

We’ve been waiting for Ninsom’s next move. Langbaan, a Thai tasting menu haunt hidden in the back of PaaDee, is a serious destination (see PoMo’s Restaurant of the Year 2014). Last year’s Hat Yai on NE Killingsworth was an instant addiction, making us wonder: where has Southern Thai fried chicken been hiding? PaaDee, open since 2011, is solid but not exceptional, making the Issan nights a welcome addition.

So far, laab (spicy “salads,” raw or cooked) is the standout section, with five choices, beef tartare/tripe to wild mushroom. I fell hard for the Thai omelette laab, with its fluffy egg strips and full-on scream of heat and citrus, shallots and mint. The green mango salad has a nice fruity-savory vibe, crunching with peanuts and dried shrimp. Also of note: peek gai tod. Or as the menu puts it: “Fried chicken wings like what they do in Issan, no flour!” That means juicy wings, with a light dusting of fried garlic and a dipping sauce (although it could use a jump-start in the flavor department). 

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Star bartender Evan Zimmerman.

A bonus on Issan nights: standout bartender Evan Zimmerman (Ava Gene’s, Woodsman Tavern) is in the house. The guy who unleashed Portland’s smoked ice obsession in 2008 says he’ll stay on through the year’s end, before opening a bar in Brooklyn. I’m eager to try his City of the Sea, sporting wakame-infused gin and cucumber syrup. But ask him to simply “make you something,” as I did, and you might receive a stunning, lime-forward, mango-coconut drink, a giant ash-dusted ice cube bobbing in the middle. 

Most of Ninsom’s cooks (and his wife) are Northeastern Thailand natives, which spurred the new idea. “They try to eat out on nights off, but end up cooking it themselves,” he says. Ninsom is in the kitchen for now, joined by PaaDee’s crew: Nipaporn Yodchran (chef), Somphong Kenyota (sous) and his wife Jutamas, all from Issan’s Roi-et province. Also helping with the menu, Langbaan cook Kitsanaruk K, an alum of Bangkok’s upscale Nahm, Bo.lan and Err. 

Where it’s all going? Too early to say. But I wonder if Ninsom’s gamble is a trial balloon for a full PaaDee takeover. It could be Langbaan Jr. Let us pray.

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