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Ping’s The Thing, But It’s No Pok Pok

Empanada Boy and I were in Portland for Passover the week before last. We had an amazing seder at my parents’ house, attended by a record 32 people, and complete with such delicacies as homemade gefilte fish (Auntie Pasti and Mushroom Maven’s handiwork), herbs from the garden for dipping in saltwater and just-laid hardboiled eggs. I made the main course—chicken with apricots and currants—and a side of roasted rosemary potatoes. The seder was fantastic, but even after putting on such a huge affair, Mango Mama still had all of us hanging around to feed. We ate at home a few other nights, but we also resorted to our Passover restaurant standby of Asian food. This only works if you are a Sephardic Jew (of Spanish or North African descent) and eat rice during Passover. Although we are technically Ashkenazic Jews (of Eastern European descent), I use the argument that I am distantly related to the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, who was a Sephardic Jew if there ever was one. Having allowed ourselves that liberty, Mango Mama, Daddy Salmon, Cerealla, EB, Flava Flav, her boyfriend Mr. Market and I all decided to pay a visit the one-year-old multi-Asian restaurant Ping. By multi-Asian, I don’t mean Asian fusion, but rather a menu composed of individual dishes originating from countries like Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Malaysia.

The restaurant is inside the building that for many years housed the unfortunately titled Chinese restaurant Hung Far Low. Mango Mama remembers going there as a kid. The owners of Ping, who also own the awesome Asian street food destination Pok Pok, bought the building, giving it a beautiful, modern, but historically referential, makeover. The restaurant has been lauded by local and national media, from The Oregonian to Alan Richman in GQ. In general, I liked the food here, but perhaps because we couldn’t try any of the noodle dishes or buns, I found it significantly less exciting than Pok Pok. There were simply fewer bursts of flavor nirvana. The Yam Yai Salad of lettuce boiled egg, prawns, chicken, bean sprouts, pickled garlic and peanut dressing was disappointingly generic for all of its super-powerful ingredients. That said, there were definitely dishes worthy of mention. The fish-ball skewers, pictured above, were nicely browned so as to taste savory and not at all fishy. But even better were the chicken liver skewers— tremblingly tender pieces of perfectly cooked chicken liver, rubbed with cilantro root, pepper, garlic and sweet soy and accompanied by a spicy Isaan dipping sauce. We ate these with servings of sticky rice and Jasmine rice. Thinly sliced duck breast was well cooked but not memorable.

Mr. Market is a vegetarian, so we ordered a couple meatless options for his benefit. As it turned out, the two vegetarian dishes were the best things we tasted that night. One was a simple skewer of roasted, grilled and halved red potatoes drizzled with a spicy mayonnaise. These were like French fries with a couple extra dimensions of intense flavor. The other vegetarian dish was one I never would have tried without Mr. Market’s inspiration because it was unappetizingly called a “carrot cake” on the menu. The quotes around the carrot cake were necessary because the dish was actually made with pieces of daikon radish cake, stir fried with eggs, bean sprouts and Kecap Manis, the Indonesian sweet soy sauce. As it turned out, this dish had it all— sweetness, earthiness, saltiness and umami. Here was a flash of those flavor epiphanies I’d had at Pok Pok.

We finished off the meal with an excellent ice cream sundae of sorts: three green scoops of pandanus (tropical plant with pineapple-shaped fruit) ice cream, coated in peanuts and chocolate and set atop a plate of sweet sticky rice. The cartoonish color, satisfying taste and utter lack of pretension in this dish helped me end my meal at Ping in excellent spirits. The food may not have blown me away this time, but it was good enough to prompt a return visit when the culinary restrictions of Passover aren’t in effect.

102 NW 4th Ave.
Portland, OR 97209

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