If you’re not Jewish, you may have heard your friends complaining last week. And if you are, you were probably the complainer. I’m not talking about the normal whining about having to give up bread and other leavened products during Passover and eat only hard, dry matzo. The complaints I’m talking about came from people who couldn’t find enough matzo to eat. That’s right, this year there was a matzo shortage. I know this from experience and from an article in the New York Times. Mango Mama wisely stocked up with a full case the day after our 30-person seder consumed her first case. But when Empanada Boy and I came back to Chicago last week, we needed some of our own. We tried three grocery stores— Jewel (the major supermarket chain), our favorite Mexican/ Greek grocery and Treasure Island. Desperate, I called Whole Foods. The guy told me they had matzo. When I got there, I found about six boxes left. My choices: organic or whole wheat. Typical. I bought both. Both tasted more like cardboard than normal matzo.
Now I’ll segue to my real topic: a matzo shortage only highlights the need for more restaurants like Portland’s Pok Pok. I went there with Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and Flava Flav on my last night in Portland. It was Passover, and we wracked our brains to come up with a restaurant that would fit our Reform dietary standards. (We usually eat rice like Sephardic Jews and don’t bother with restrictions on corn oil or soy lecithin, etc.) Pok Pok, which specializes in Thai and other Southeast Asian street food, was a perfect fit. We even saw some other Jewish friends leaving as we arrived! Nearly all the critics (including me) agree that this restaurant is fantastic, serving exceptionally flavorful food like the delicious sour and spicy fish soup with evaporated milk, galangal and lemongrass, pictured here. Pok Pok was The Oregonian’s Restaurant of the Year in 2007. There was a wait for a table, but that gave Flav and me a chance to sample some of the drinks. She had a tasty hot toddy (not technically kosher for Passover) because she was feeling sick. I had a plum drinking vinegar— a kind of sweet-sour drink made by mixing flavored vinegar with soda water. It tasted too much like a Jolly Rancher to me, but it was worth a try.
We were hungry when we finally sat down. Mango Mama knew she wanted to order Pok Pok’s specialty, the Kai Yaang, a charcoal roasted game hen stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, pepper and cilantro and served with a spicy sweet and sour dipping sauce. This bird is so incredibly infused with flavor that you just want to tear it apart the second it hits the plate. The skin is perfectly crispy, and the combination of the seasonings on the meat and in the sauce makes for some blissful moments. We also tried the soup above and another chicken dish (called one of the best dishes of the year by Food and Wine) of wings marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar. These were also crackly and redolent of the pungent fish sauce, but I found them a little too sweet.
That would have probably been enough food if we hadn’t been so swept up in trying more things. We went back to another old favorite, the Green Papaya Pok Pok, a spicy, fish-saucy salad made of shredded green papaya, tomatoes, long beans, chilies and peanuts. It has everything bright and bold you can think of, and the earthy, salty peanuts balance it out. We ate it with sticky rice. The final dish was a catfish marinated in turmeric and sour sticky rice. It sat on a bed of vermicelli (rice noodles, so kosher) with peanut, mints and other greens. The mint was wildly flavorful, but the catfish was disappointing. It was a lot milder than it sounded and couldn’t stand up to the other dishes on the table.
In any other context, I’m sure I would have like that catfish better. But the thing I love most about Pok Pok is the boldness of its flavors. This is not shy food! This food makes a statement, and it makes your mouth sing! And so we came away feeling sated and refreshed. Pok Pok’s fare ain’t no matzo, but it was kosher enough for me.
3226 SE Division St.
Portland, OR 97202