I’ve heard and read great things about Pok Pok for the past few years. I knew that I would visit, but I didn’t know that I would one day live three blocks away or how incredibly moved I would be by the experience. I think everyone who visits Pok Pok has high expectations. I am always ready for disappointment, but I didn’t expect my expectations to be shattered. . .in the very best possible way.
Living with Anosmia can be difficult. If something is burning I won’t know until I see flames, if I smell bad I won’t know until someone tells me. Eating and cooking as an Anosmic provides a similar set of challenges; I religiously check the expiration date of dairy products, I often let garlic linger a little too long in a hot pan. Dining out without a sense of smell is a bit easier; I trust chefs of any skill level and I am often delighted by plate presentation and basic flavor components. I enjoy food based on texture, spice, and heat. On to Pok Pok. . .
Aaron and I were offered seats at the bar, we nodded in agreement and followed the host to the Soda Lounge. The place was packed at Noon on a Friday but I was happy to tuck my elbows in and situate myself on one of four bar stools. The bartender asked if we liked Thai Iced Tea and placed two in front of us. . .on the house. Delicious.
I poured myself a glass of water and started to browse my surroundings: a large bowl of assorted citrus fruits, three small prep bowls containing various forms of sugar, a clear glass of re-hydrating dates, a vat of liquid labeled “coconut simple syrup”, and directly in front of me,
I began to feel very refreshed, awakened and invigorated. Such a sweet little place with so many visual hints pointing towards culinary innovation. I perused the menu. . .
I ordered a Tamarind Whiskey Sour. . .
Garnished with a slice of orange and an Amarean cherry, one sip filled my olfactory space with spice and tang. It is then that I fully realized what was happening to me: I was having a sensory experience unlike anything I have experienced before. The citrus, the basil, the tamarind, the illusive Portland sun through the bamboo stalks in the window, the chatter of light conversation. I am firing on 5 sense-cylinders, instead of 4.
Aaron let me order for the two of us, I ordered the items I’d read the most about. . .
Papaya Pok Pok. . .
I opted to add the Salted Black Crab and the bartender immediately asked, “Have you had this before?” I shook my head from side to side and smiled. He told me that the dish would not include large hunks of crab, but the essence of the urchin and a deep sea flavor that would be evident throughout the entire dish. He said the dish would be potent but it was his favorite. I flashed the universal thumbs-up signal and said, “Let’s do this!” As the menu suggests, I also ordered a serving of sticky rice to accompany the salad. . .
I opened the canister and removed the sticky rice, placing a portion on Aaron’s plate and a portion on mine. I ignored my portion for the moment and continued to focus on the salad. Julienned green papaya with long green beans, split cherry tomatoes, flavors of lime, chili, garlic, peanuts and so much more. I adored the addition of salted crab, picking up various bits and sucking on the ends. I poured the liquid from the bottom of the salad plate on the rice and used a piece of lettuce to lift bites in to my mouth. I barely understand why the bartender, and perhaps the rest of the staff , discussed the crab addition with new customers. However, I’m not in the restaurant business and I can only assume they want their clientele to know what to expect. For me, it felt like starting a new relationship with a disclaimer. . .”I’m a great gal, but a little bit crazy”. . .”I’m really interested in you, but I’ve hurt a lot of people in my past.” I loved everything about this dish, no disclaimer necessary.
Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. . .
These wings are truly next level. Sticky, spicy, sweet. Aaron and I kept looking at each other and nodding, licking our fingers and smiling. Despite all theflavors, I was astounded by the delicate natural chicken flavor that is rampant in this dish. Quoting the bearded critic from Mystic Pizza, they are “in a word, superb”. The heat builds up over time and soon I was ecstatic, thrilled to be in this restaurant, thrilled to be in Portland. When the heat swelled I grabbed a slice of pickled daikon, picked carrot, or a crisp cucumber. I was in love with tamarind, salted crab, cherry tomatoes, amazing chicken, and cute containers of sticky rice.
Dining out without a sense of smell is never like this. I don’t mean to imply that Pok Pok temporarily cured my congenital Anosmia, quite the opposite. As Aaron and I walked home I asked him what the restaurant smelled like. It must smell like so many things! He said that while it certainly didn’t smell bad, it didn’t smell too much like any one aroma. I was shocked. How is that possible!?! What about my 5-cylinder sensory experience?
After some reflection I’ve come to this reasoning. When you have Anosmia you count on several different factors for an enjoyable meal, smell is not one of them. However, could I have enjoyed this meal as much if I was eating it in a porta-potty? Absolutely not. The flavors, the day, the kind service, the company, the jar of basil in front of my face – all of these elements worked in unison to create this experince. I am still in awe.
If you know me and plan to visit me in Portland, we will go to Pok Pok. If you don’t know me and plan to visit Portland, please visit Pok Pok. Most importantly if you live with Anosmia, I beg you to visit Portland and go to Pok Pok.