My Thai

A full review of Pok Pok’s new indoor dining room, Whiskey Soda Lounge. Pad thai lovers need not apply.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

"Do you want to go to a really good Thai restaurant?” I ask my mother one recent evening while she and my father are visiting for the weekend.{% display:image for:article image:1 align:left width:250 %}

“Nah,” she says. “I’ve been eating a lot of pad thai lately. I’m not in the mood for Thai food.”

“That’s because you haven’t had good Thai food,” I say, frustrated.

“I don’t know …”

“They don’t even serve pad thai at this place. It’s different. You’ll like it.”

We go out for hanger steaks instead.

Days later, I’m chatting with a friend and fellow food writer in New York City.

“So which restaurants do you like in Portland?” she asks me.

“Lately I’ve really enjoyed this Thai restaurant that just opened up.”

“Uh-huh. So what else do you like?”

Here’s the thing. When I recommend Whiskey Soda Lounge (a name that already seems to beget skepticism) by referring to it as a Thai restaurant, people seem to imagine me swooning over plates of greasy pad thai and overseasoned pad see ew. “What a hack food writer,” they probably think to themselves, practically smelling the fish sauce dripping from my words.

If I then say to such skeptics, “They’ve got these chicken wings that are marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar and deep-fried and then tossed in more fish sauce that’s been caramelized and tastes almost candied—and I can’t stop thinking about them,” they ask me if I know of any good burger joints.

And when I tell them about the herbal salad (yam samun phrai) that combines at least 15 ingredients, including fragrant betel leaf and sawtooth coriander, parsnips, highly seasoned ground pork and pungent dried shrimp, and assert that it tastes earthy and sweet and salty and meaty, visions of soggy green papaya salad malinger in their heads.

Sometimes, sometimes, if I describe the bowl of condensed-milk ice cream drenched in a shot of bracing Vietnamese espresso and accompanied by a deep-fried Chinese doughnut, they’ll raise their eyebrows in curiosity.

But not usually.

Why? It’s not that these people don’t enjoy Thai food. It’s that most of them see the quality and breadth of Thai cuisine hitting the same low bar in Portland and the rest of the United States. For the most part I agree, but Whiskey Soda Lounge provides a pleasantly surprising reprieve from such gastronomic simulacra.

The brainchild of owner Andy Ricker, who has spent a decade making annual pilgrimages to Southeast Asia, Whiskey Soda Lounge occupies the tiny basement of a house on SE Division St just steps away from Pok Pok, Ricker’s original and equally ambitious take-out Thai food shack. Inside, low ceilings, teak siding, a cozy seating arrangement (12 tables and 4 barstools in all), dim lighting and attentive yet low-key service all give the dining room the air of a private late-night den, without ever feeling exclusive.

With dozens of lemongrass-stuffed game hens spit-roasting outside on the charcoal rotisserie alongside skewers of whole baby octopus and coconut-milk marinated pork loin on a nearby grill, the scents wafting into the restaurant are utterly enticing, if not downright addictive. And so are the flavors of just about every dish served here, which mostly reflect the tenets of Thai cuisine, but also other elements of Southeast Asian fare—to say nothing of the prices (generally $6–12 per entrée, and they’re meant to be shared).

Rotating soups, such as a hot and sour Isaan-style beef soup called tom saep neua, tend to be lemongrass-heavy, but they’re restorative in their own right. The Carlton Farms baby pork ribs have seemed a tad dry both times I’ve ordered them, but their dramatic flavor—which derives from a marinade of whiskey, soy sauce, honey, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg—has convinced me to devour an entire plate anyway. Definitely worth repeat visits are the whole curried Dungeness crab ($24 for a whole; $14 for half) and a “salad” of crispy fried eggs dressed with salty Chinese celery, onions and pickled carrots, tossed in a sweet, pungent palm sugar and fish sauce dressing. And have I mentioned that herbal salad already?

But I hardly expect to convince you, or my mother, or my friend in New York. In some ways I hope I don’t, because as I write this there’s already a long line of fully-won-over devotees eagerly waiting to feast on herbal salad—and when the craving strikes, we all hate to wait for truly good “Thai” food.