At Cully Central, a friendly little beer bar in Northeast Portland's fast-growing Cully neighborhood, the suds are local and the food is from 7,000 miles away—from Laos, a small Southeast Asian nation sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand.
Pop by for lunch or dinner and you’ll see neighbors demolishing paper plates piled with grilled beef and sticky rice, or tackling fiery papaya salad loaded with fish sauce between sips of Crux and Buoy drafts. The big screen TVs tune to ESPN, or they might stream YouTube videos of "Return of the Mack" and Milli Vanilli. Kids tear around the blacktop patio outside, playing cornhole while nibbling on tasty, deep-fried Lao beef jerky. It’s not quite like anywhere else in town: a genuinely family-friendly sports bar with a trove of intense, unorthodox pub grub.
“Lao food is a lot more bold and flavorful than Thai food—it’s a bit of an acquired taste,” says Cully Central co-owner Ae Sangasy, who also owns Lao cart Khao Niew in the Happy Valley Station food cart pod. “[This place] is a great way to introduce a food not many people in town have heard of.”
It also almost didn’t happen. Sangasy and her partners, Lou Sundara and Kasey Park, originally wanted to open a simple beer bar—surrounded by a standard burgers-'n’-tacos-filled food cart pod, which would include a second Khao Niew cart. But city permitting setbacks tabled the cart pod idea (for now) and forced the trio to regroup and move Khao Niew into the unopened bar’s kitchen.
The crew opened Cully Central in January in the once-grimy space last home to the Shady Lady strip club, with refurbished tables and counters they topped with planks from old Hollywood Bowl lanes and a roster of great Lao drinking foods. They crossed their fingers, hoping locals wouldn’t balk. Instead, Cully showed up. And it has kept showing up ever since.
Born in communist Laos, Sangasy came to America as a refugee at age 11, after having lived in a Thai refugee camp since she was six. The recipes her Cully patrons have taken to so quickly are often the traditional foods her mom cooked for her family—first in Oklahoma City, then in Eugene, Oregon, and eventually in Portland. Now, Sangasy and her brothers, Akadate Ittihrit and Nong Phimmoungkhoun, who are the bar’s primary cooks, share those dishes with multiple generations of fellow Portlanders. That includes fellow Laos natives in search of a taste of home.
The menu consists of large, full-color photos of Lao dishes, pages laminated and bound on a metal ring—you flip back and forth, in agony, not wanting to have to choose. Every table ought to order nam khao crispy rice salad to share: a huge heap of super-crunched, cilantro- and curry-perfumed, lime-zinged rice mingled with shredded coconut and Lao cured pork. (You can order it vegan, too.) Load up a big lettuce leaf with the deep-fried goodness and crunch your way to heaven. It’s one of the most texturally terrific dishes in town. And you will have leftovers.
Lao chicken soup comes loaded with fried shallots and crazy-chewy rice noodles that Sangasy and her brothers roll by hand every morning. Red onion-studded larb sometimes sells out before dinnertime. That intense papaya salad, which tastes like “high-grade funk,” as my husband termed it, gets its heady bite thanks to a staple Lao ingredient: bpa dak, a thick, “stinkalicious” fermented fish sauce.
Another standout? Juicy marinated grilled pieng sien beef suffused with garlicky flavor and charry bits with every tender bite. It’s served with good sticky rice and some spicy roasted tomato chutney that I shall dump on everything I eat from now on. For dessert: fried bananas, which show up as shatter-crisp, egg roll wrapper-clad fruit bombs, oozy and tart-sweet, showered in powdered sugar. This is fun, excellent drinking (and keep drinking) food, plain and simple.
There’s also a brief menu of cheap American bar eats: buttery, Frank’s RedHot-slathered served wings with celery sticks; paper boats of hard-crunch tater tots; those weird Dino-shaped chicken nuggets for the kiddos. They’re a perfectly reasonable sop for people who aren’t smart or brave enough to know when a great Lao dish is staring them in the face. Suckers.
Meanwhile, the bar stocks all the requisite Portland-y drafts: Fort George, Breakside, and Barley Brown’s abound, with cursory wines and a cooler stocked with bottles of Beerlao, Starbucks Frappuccinos, and Honest Kids juice boxes.
I have rarely encountered a place more committed to setting you up for family drinking and dining success. A big stack of board games sits in the dining room, even a few squirt guns. The whole western end is a kid area with a chalkboard wall and kitchen playset. Outside? Plenty of picnic tables, fire pits, giant Jenga, the works.
“Bring kids! Bring dogs!” exclaimed a staffer the first time I was in. True to form, I saw one patron lean over from his table, pry open the sliding glass door, and toss food scraps to his dog tied to one of the outdoor tables. Last time I had dinner there, my kid spent an hour outside playing hide and seek with a four-year-old superball of energy named Monty whose mom works at the pub, while my I ate my weight in crispy rice salad and plump pork sausages, simultaneously cheering Nadal in a TV tennis match and singing along to a Prince video. Now, that’s feeling at home—no matter where you’re originally from.