Sunday, October 17, 2010

Portland's Best Restaurants: Pok Pok, Ha VL, Screen Door and Laurelhurst Market

If you love food, do yourself a favor and plan a food vacation to Portland. I've heard over the last few years that this rainy city of Oregon has become the hub for good food that can satisfy both your yearning for comfort food and creative cuisine. It's also a city for readers, artists, DIY-ers and musicians so what's not to like?

I spent a week on a food tour in May this year and here's my long overdue post (motivated by a friend who is heading to Portland in a few days). I ate at a lot of places while in Portland and some were so fantastic, I had to break my travel rule and go more than once; I did not regret it and I hope you will like the few places I'm highlighting here.

I want to give a special shout out to my friend Charlie who lives in Portland and was my partner-in-crime on this food tour and taught me how to take better food photographs. He's an awesome photographer (check out his shots for the LA Derby Dolls) and I was very lucky to have him take some of my photographs too on this trip.

My favorite restaurant in Portland is Pok Pok hands down. Pok Pok serves food popular in the restaurants, streets and homes of Southeast Asia though Thai and Vietnamese cuisine seems to be the main influence. Pok Pok was so good, I ate there three times and it made me want to travel to SE Asia even more. The restaurant also operates the Whisky Soda Lounge diagonally across the street; it's a wonderful place to enjoy Pok Pok appetizers and small plates with whiskey, a beer or one of their creative cocktails while you wait for your table at Pok Pok.

Muu Paa Kham Waan
I loved that Pok Pok had game meat on the menu. This boar collar appetizer was a little chewy and as I chewed, the strong marinade of garlic, coriander, pepper, soy and chili permeated my tongue and paired well with my beer. That's what I love about Pok Pok; they're not afraid of strong flavors and the food has an array of flavors and depth.

Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings
Fried fresh, natural chicken wings with a caramelized garlicky fish sauce marinade. This is a home recipe from one of Pok Pok's cooks. I'll take these over buffalo wings any day!

Khao Soi Kai
You won't find a bland pad thai at Pok Pok. This Thai curry noodle soup hits your nose with the smell of curry heaven but it's not super spicy and the chicken just falls off the bone. Pok Pok and a lot of Portland restaurants uses fresh, natural chicken (aka no hormones, antibiotics). I ordered this twice in my three visits.

Cha Ca La Vong
This is a refreshing dish perfect for a warm Summer day. Pieces of lightly fried catfish with tumeric, scallions, mint and peanuts served over a bed of rice vermicelli noodles with mam nem, a Vietnamese anchovy sauce. But seriously, I don't need a Summer day to eat this. One Cha Ca La Vong please. Pok Pok was my last meal before I left Portland and I made sure that I ordered this again.

Kai Yaang
Most of us know this dish on Thai menus as Thai BBQ chicken but this game hen is anything but the dry, bland chicken you'll find in a lot of Thai restaurants on the Westside. The meat on this is moist and gives off hints of lemongrass and garlic. The chili sweet and sour dipping sauce and sticky rice that goes with the chicken is perfect.

Kuung Op Wun Sen
Mmmm. Giant wild-caught prawns cooked in a clay pot with pork belly, whiskey and thin rice "thread" noodles. The whisky and soy marinade seeps into all the ingredients in the pot as it's cooked over charcoal, almost like it has a caramelizing effect. Again, ate this twice.

Sii Khrong Muu Yaang
Baby back ribs from Carlton Farms. I would have liked the whisky honey sauce to be stronger but the ribs were meaty and yummy anyway.

This was the only dish I didn't write down the name of. It was a delicious beef clay pot stew with sauce that went perfectly with rice.

Mango Sticky Rice
Warm, moist sticky rice topped with ripe mangoes and a warm, sweet coconut syrup. This dessert was so good, I ate the whole thing. Charlie had to order his own. Hehe.

My favorite "hole-in-the-wall and you'll miss it if you blink" spot in Portland is Ha VL, a Vietnamese sandwich banh mi shop that only sells one featured noodle soup a day. Charlie had read that Pok Pok's owner/chef, Andy Ricker, loves eating breakfast at Ha VL every morning because it's one of the very few authentic noodle shops in Portland. Since we both love noodle soup and Pok Pok so much, we had to make the pilgrimage. Ha VL's noodle soups is like food art; they look, smell and taste delicious and all for $7.50 a bowl. You can really tell the owners put a lot of effort and good ingredients (i.e. using natural chicken) into the noodle soup and foodies of Portland appreciate it because Ha VL often sells out before closing. Like Pok Pok, this was the only place I ate at three times during my week in Portland and fueled my fire to travel to SE Asia. I'm super jealous that Charlie lives within five minutes of Ha VL. (Oh, and we ran into Ricker all three times. He was cool and I thanked him for running such a great restaurant.)

Pnompenh Noodle Soup (Hu Tieu Nam Vang)
A slow-simmered pork broth with shrimp, pork liver, sliced roast pork, fishballs and squid. Love - Love - Love. Unlike Japanese pork broths that often add extra pork fat for flavor, this soup was clear, not oily and still bursting with flavor and depth. And I loved all the different ingredients with the al dente rice noodles.

Shrimpcake Noodle Soup (Bun Rieu)
Again, the delicious pork broth with ground pork meatballs, shrimpcake, sliced pork and tomatoes. My words are not doing justice to how good this noodle soup was.

Peppery Pork Meatball Noodle Soup (Bun Moc Hanoi)
Pepper-marinated pork meatballs and slices of pork in pork broth. The name says it all. Simple and satisfying.

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup (Bun Bo Hue)
This was our lucky day. It was Saturday and it turns out that on weekends, Ha VL serves two different noodle soups. Charlie and I ordered different soups but no doubt, knowing that I was leaving Portland soon, I contemplated ordering both noodles just for myself. My stomach forced me to exercise self-restraint.

Favorite neighborhood restaurant in Portland goes to Screen Door, a restaurant that specializes in Southern comfort food and showcases a lot of local and organic food. It's low-key and has a great bar for people-watching. We scored a table that faced the open-kitchen so I got to see all the action and salivate over every dish that came out of the kitchen. By the way, everyone who worked in the kitchen looked like rock stars or hipsters. That seems to be a trend in Portland.

Pan-fried Scallops
This was the special appetizer of the day. Fresh scallops. I had to order it and I was not disappointed. Sweet and cooked to bouncy perfection with crispy edges.

Lowcountry Shrimp n' Grits.
I've only had grits once before and it was not a good experience. But this appetizer from Screen Door totally changed my mind. The grits were smooth and creamy with garlic butter and shaved parmesan and I was surprised that it went so well with the shrimp. I almost licked the plate.

Steak topped with Fried Oysters
Oh my god! This was their special of the night and I couldn't believe the steak was amazing for only $19.95. The steak comes from cows raised nearby and the juiciness and meaty sweetness of this steak is hard to find even at some of the top steakhouses in Los Angeles. And those two fried oysters was the cherry on the top of a perfect meal.

Crispy Fried Buttermilk Chicken
Charlie ordered this and I couldn't help stealing bites from him. The chicken just taste so darn good in Portland. I really appreciate their wide use local, naturally raised chickens; you can really taste the difference in the meat texture and the meat juices. The chicken alone was so good, I didn't think it needed the ham gravy and mash potatoes that came with it.

Los Angeles desperately needs more butcher shop and restaurant hybrids like Laurelhurst Market, which features all natural, hormone/antibiotic-free meats. This is the foodlover and cook's dream shop that I wish I had near me. (The newly opened Salt's Cure in WeHo might be the answer but it's too far from me and I've yet to have time to check it out). As you enter Laurelhurst, you're greeted by their butcher shop's meat glass counter chock full of goodies like head cheese, whole rabbits, duck fat, bacon, sausages and more. You can order different cuts of meat to take home and cook (I got some short ribs). To the left of the restaurant, is a casual dining room with just the right blend of decor to make you feel like you're in a nice bistro. The wait can get long at Laurelhurst but luckily, they have a cozy bar.

I love this chalkboard hanging in the Laurelhurst dining room. I really wanted to steal it and take it home with me.

Steak Tartare
I love steak tartare but I only order it when I trust the source/restaurant and Laurelhurst fit the bill.

Bacon Deviled Eggs
Bacon and eggs - two of my favorite foods. Enough said.

Wedge Salad
The lettuce in the salad tasted like it came straight from a garden. It had a wonderful blue cheese dressing and came topped with bacon, fried shallots and some herbs. Charlie ordered a salad because we were feeling guilty for not quite fulfilling our vegetable serving of the day but of course, it had to come topped with bacon. This is why I love eating with Charlie.

Grilled Creekstone Farms Ribeye
This didn't really need the blue cheese topping and onion rings. The steak was huge, tender and delicious. Best of all? Only $33. Again, hard to find that quality in LA.

Housemade Smores with a Whiskey Shot
Best Smores Ever! And paired with whisky? Brilliant.

Portland is a great city to eat, drink (breweries abound) and be merry in. Plus, the city has Powell's Books (I spent about almost a whole day in there, lost in cooking, literature, true crime and sci-fi), proximity to the beautiful Oregon coast and Seattle, another great food city, and tons of parks and trails to hike and bike. The city is liberal and friendly to folks like me who love to read, eat delicious food, drink good beer, cook with fresh ingredients and live in a community that enjoys its art, music and film.

I can't wait to go to Portland again and I foresee many future visits even if it's just for a long weekend. If it weren't for the rainy weather, I'd be planning my move up there.

Pok Pok
3226 SE Division Street
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 232-1387

Whiskey Soda Lounge
3131 SE Division Street
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 232-0102

Wing Ming Market Center
2738 SE 82nd Ave # 103
Portland, OR 97266-1577
(503) 772-0103

Screen Door
2337 East Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214-1655
(503) 542-0880

Laurelhurst Market
3155 E. Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214
Restaurant - (503) 206-3097
Butcher Shop - (503) 206 -3099

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