Sitting in a slightly busted highchair under a canary yellow Singha umbrella, beside a wall of primary-colored milk crates converted into cheerfully industrial planters, my one-year-old son discovers that he can pronounce “Pok Pok.” He repeats it joyously in the restaurant’s backyard, waving a spoon in the air: “Pok Pok Pok Pok! Pok Pok POK!” His reverie voices what the rest of us are feeling each time we sample a new dish of aggressively balanced flavors—hard-hitting heat versus thick sweetness, funky fermented fish versus forcefully fresh herbs. We can try to discuss this restaurant like adults here, but it would be far more accurate to throw some utensils over my head and sing you a song about it.
First verse belongs to the wings—oh, the wings—sweet-spicy, sticky-crispy, tossed in fish-sauce-and-garlic deliciousness ($12.50). And, oh, the Kaeng Hung Leh ($14), rich pork belly and shoulder infused in a deep, dark curry. The street vendor specialty, Hoi Thawt ($14), takes it to the bridge with a crispy broken crepe, plump and creamy mussels, eggs, garlic chives and bean sprouts. Pok Pok caters to adventurous omnivores, but everyone can find something to love here. There are a handful of vegan options, which is entirely fitting for a Thai restaurant imported from Portlandia. For the faint of heart, we’d recommend some sticky rice and the Kai Yaang, a mild and juicy rotisserie chicken (half bird $12, whole bird $20) perfumed by its stuffing of lemongrass, garlic, pepper and cilantro and served with a duo of sauces, one tamarind and one spicy sweet and sour. And somehow you must save room for the Khao Niaw Mamuang ($7), a buttery-sweet mango over creamy, coconutty sticky rice, sprinkled with lightly salted toasted sesame seeds.
Once you’ve waited out the epic lines for a table, you can’t order the wrong thing, but it may take a few tries to pace your meal properly—and it’s hard to predict exactly what you’re going to get. For example, the menu description of the Papaya Pok Pok ($8.50), “spicy green papaya salad with tomatoes, long beans, thai chili, lime juice, tamarind, fish sauce, garlic, palm sugar, dried shrimp and peanuts,” only hints at the dish’s tongue-numbing heat. The salad makes a perfect pairing with a rich, meatier dish, but it’s a bit too blistering for a first course. And while the Cha Cha “La Vong” ($15) is accurately described as turmeric-marinated catfish that’s served over rice vermicelli with peanuts, cilantro, mint and mam nem, the menu doesn’t mention that mam nem is a gloriously spicy sauce, so deeply sweet with pineapple flavor that it seems as though an entire fruit was condensed into a couple of tablespoons. If flavors had volume, this dish would sing loud, hitting all the notes at once, a cacophony of chubby toddlers chanting, “Pok Pok POK POK!”