For a decade, culinary tourists travelled to what seemed like a continent away from downtown to visit Pok Pok, way out on Southeast Division Street. Andy Ricker’s Thai-inspired restaurant became the Chez Panisse of Asian cuisine using fresh, authentic ingredients prepared with imagination. While Pok Pok’s popularity spawned six new enterprises in Ricker’s portfolio, Southeast Division remained mostly barren of good food choices.
Then suddenly Pok Pok had plenty of neighbours, and Southeast Division Street became the latest “don’t miss” culinary destination in Portland; the west coast’s hottest food city.
Given Pok Pok’s influence on the neighbourhood, it’s no surprise that Division’s culinary expansion looks directly to the east. Yataimura Maru by Shigezo is designed to imitate a random alley one might happen upon in a Japanese town, featuring a robata, a ramen stall and a sushi bar. Ricker’s own Sen Yai Noodles serves traditional one-bowl meals that include breakfast items such as Jok, (rice porridge in pork bone broth), as well as a range of dinner entrées.
Not all the trends along Division are Asian in nature. Chef Trent Pierce demonstrated Portland’s “anything goes” epicurean attitude perfectly when he converted his former ramen house into Block + Tackle, a seafood restaurant. But Pierce couldn’t abandon the Far East altogether. Roe, his fabulous omakase (“trust the chef”) restaurant can still be found directly behind Block + Tackle.
A European air has also settled quite nicely into Division Street, led by Ava Gene’s, a traditional Italian room and menu created by Stumptown‘s Duane Sorenson. Ava Gene’s is one of several new side projects by the current coffee king, including the Roman Candle Baking Company conveniently situated right next door. The Roman Candle specializes in wood-fired pizzas and fresh breads.
Portland’s popular French bakery, St. Honoré Boulangerie, opened this fall. But a sweet tooth will enjoy options beyond Honoré’s pain au chocolat, canelé and other delicacies. Salt & Straw, the Voodoo Doughnut of ice creameries, blends flavours that range from the sort of familiar, Freckled Woodblock Chocolate, to the bizarre, “Candy Cap Mushroom with Red Port Wine.” But the amazing tastes here don’t lie. Traditionalists should definitely visit Lauretta Jean’s Pie Bakery for a slice of heirloom apple pie or blackberry raspberry streusel.
Back at Pok Pok, Andy Ricker keeps racking up awards, most recently for his first cookbook, “Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand.” His flagship restaurant continues to serve some of the most exciting tastes in America, Thai-influenced street foods that often meld a dozen ingredients.
Today, Pok Pok remains the go-to experience for any first time visitor to this neighbourhood or, for that matter, to Portland. But ten years after Chef Ricker anchored his long-tail boat on Southeast Division, you’ll no longer feel stranded on an epicurean island should you also sail here.
Feature image: Wings at Portland’s popular Pok Pok © H.L.I.T.
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Have you visited Portland’s Southeast Division Street? Where’s your favourite food haunt in the neighbourhood? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Crai Bower