Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Great Ping, Pok Pok, Whiskey Soda Lounge Debate

I've had a lot of great meals in New York, but the one thing I was certain about when moving to Portland is that great meals weren't about to stop for me. They were actually going to be more affordable and thankfully, there would be more of them. Case in point is the subject at hand: Ping, Pok Pok, and Whiskey Soda Lounge. These are all restaurants in Portland owned by chef Andy Ricker. Let me tell you, they are all quite good. The food is inspired by Southeast Asia and it's unlike food you'd probably find in other Asian inspired restaurants. 

The first restaurant opened was Pok Pok and it's good. One of the favorites people order is the chicken wings. How good are they? So good that Food and Wine even offers up the recipe for Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. If you can cook, you should try to make them. There's always a long line for Pok Pok - the place isn't that big (it's actually located in an old house - believe me, this is not odd for Portland), but it has its charms. When there's warmer weather you might even be tempted to eat out front, which offers some good people watching. When I went there, I had a great experience and part of that had to do with the waiter. He steered us in the right direction and we left wanting more.

Then Ping opened. Matt called one day and said Ping was having a soft launch and that we should try it. We did, and again, the experience was great. It was a different kind of cuisine - more street-style food. The idea is to share. Yes, the food was amazing, but we had a waitress who steered us in the right direction making the experience that much more enjoyable. She even introduced us to my new favorite dessert: a rice and ice cream concoction. When I heard about it, I said "That does not sound yummy." But she hadn't steered us wrong, so I gave it a try and let me tell you who knew rice would be sooooo good for dessert.

Next, Ricker opens another place across the street and down a block from Pok Pok called Whiskey Soda Lounge. To be fair, Whiskey Soda Lounge is more of a bar that serves interesting apps. The idea is that you can chill out there while you wait for your name to be called at Pok Pok. Not a bad idea, considering many people would go to the bar across the street while they waited to be seated. (This is not unusual in Portland and if anything it should tell you how good the food is at some of these restaurants.) The menu is more adventurous, so if you have a lot of stuff you don't eat this is not a good fit for you. It also has some menu items that were at Pok Pok or Ping.

Thus, the question comes up among friends, which of the three spots are your favorite. For me, its hands down Ping. The menu is interesting, the drinks are delicious, the service is great, and it's low key. They also have a must-have item that I actually start thinking about whenever I drive anywhere in the vicinity of Ping even if I'm not going there. It's ju pa bao: a grilled pork chop on the bone in a bun (See Kaliel's picture above). It melts in my mouth. It's simultaneously sweet and salty. Everyone I take there I make them try it and they often say "That was the surprise. You just don't expect something that simple to be that good." If that's not enough of a recommendation, at our last visit, the waiter told us that men dressed in suits stop in on their way out to dinner with wives or friends to pick one up to help tide them over to dinner.

There you have it, three great Asian-inspired food spots, but which is your favorite? If you're coming to town and could only visit one of those places, well you'd know which I'd pick.

Side Note: I should also mention Andy Ricker has another restaurant Foster Burger. I have yet to eat there, but I hear good things and that of course, its quiet opening was packed and filled with hipsters. How does he do it? I, for one, am just glad he does.

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