Best Restaurants 2022

Som Tum Thai Kitchen Offers Papaya Salad Paradise Near PSU

The year-old restaurant specializes in papaya salads, laab, soups, sausages, and more.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton November 7, 2022 Published in the December 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

A spread of dishes, clockwise from top: pork cartilage soup, moo ping, duck larb, sticky rice, field crab papaya salad, and raw salmon salad

Image: Thomas Teal

When customers sit down at Som Tum Thai Kitchen (1924 SW Broadway), some order without looking at the menu. “I’ll have the pad see ew,” they’ll say. How does Sirapob Chaiprathum, the owner known simply as Q, respond? “We don’t have pad see ew or curry. We have pad thai, pineapple fried rice, crab rangoon, and cashew chicken—but have you ever tried Isan food?”

Q has cooked food from northeastern Thailand's Isan region since childhood, helping his mom sell food from a cart. When he landed in Missouri in 2005, he opened a restaurant serving the dishes you’d typically find at Thai restaurants in America—green, yellow, and red curries, pad thai, pad see ew. When he came to Portland in 2019, he dreamed of serving Isan cuisine, the food he grew up with, where pla ra, or salty fermented fish, is the seasoning of choice. Though Isan dishes can be found at various restaurants in Portland's thriving Thai food scene, you'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant as dedicated to focusing on Isan cuisine as Som Tum.

“You’re sure they’re going to eat it?” Q recalls his mother saying. With plates of the namesake papaya salad flying out of the kitchen, it’s safe to say they will. The sprawling menu offers eight kinds of som tum—including with salted duck egg, soy-marinated field crab, corn and apple, or crispy pork rind, and there’s even a vegan option. The field crab version is particularly good, topped with succulent, salty-sweet seafood. The salted duck egg version tastes like you plucked the rich center of a moon cake and added its umami richness to what’s typically a light, acidic dish.

Try Som Tum's larb with succulent slices of grilled pork and crunchy, coarse toasted rice powder; it provides a slightly charred flavor and a whole new texture to larb, which is often ground or finely chopped. Though the duck larb—a specialty in Q’s home province, Udon Thani in northeastern Thailand—sounds promising, we wouldn’t have minded it even fattier and juicier. Grilled and fried meats make up their own section of the menu, and while the fried chicken won’t dethrone Hat Yai's anytime soon, the moo ping skewers are particularly good, glazed in coconut milk for maximum succulence and richness.

On warmer days, seafood salads like raw shrimp with bitter melon and a spicy herbal dressing or raw salmon in sweet-sour dressing both make good options, though they don't always hit the right balances of spice and tang. You can skip over the longan drink and the pandan lemongrass drink, both of which leaned too sweet and syrupy. But regardless of the weather, don’t leave without trying the homey soups, citrusy and tender pork cartilage to herbal chicken with squash and hairy basil. 

The menu’s slogan tells you, loud and clear, the best way to eat at Som Tum: “Not one single dish.” Everything is best accompanied by baskets of sticky rice, and selecting one item from each page’s category is a good strategy. Choose your spice level, from “baby” to Thai spicy—the latter is sure to make sweat drip from your ear canals—and bring friends and share.