Portlanding: Thai Cuisine

Welcome to the first round of Portlanding for VeganMoFo! I’m now appropriately back in town with a cat snuggled against me, and since I was exhausted after returning from our VVC mission in Chicago last night, I’m appropriate combining what should have been a Thai Tuesday with a Portlanding Wednesday, which will almost surely influence my meal flavors this evening. As for today’s post, I wanted to share three of the Portland area’s vegan-friendly Thai spots that I’ve enjoyed within the past few months. Portland does have an all vegetarian Thai spot that I used to frequent by default years ago, but since learning – and trying – more flavorful options, well, I can’t even remember the last time I dined there. Now, authentic is a tricky word, you can grasp the meaning, but the culinary interpretations and evolution are always controversial, and even more so when it comes to veganizing dishes. Some of the sheer sweetness and basic vegetables may be right, but there’s so much that’s most definitely missing, like specialty ingredients and regional produce, and whatever you’re subbing/leaving out to make it vegan. For example, I’ve made Khao Soi, a Burmese-influence Northern Thai classic, in the past, and I was really happy with it, but then I devoured it in its birthplace, Chiang Mai, and my next recreation made the first so rightfully amateur in comparison. Pickled greens? Crispy shallots? Wheat noodles vs. rice? Do you have access to or want to make vegetarian fish sauce? Mushroom sauce? Where are you going with the broth? In retrospect, these are elements I hadn’t *truly* obsessed about before. Our recent Heartichoke Thai meets Northwest dinner was quite an experience with our regional meets vegan interpretation meets Northwest influence and availability. With the aforementioned dish, when it comes to Portland vegan offerings, the ever-expanding Pok Pok (though stick to cocktails and drinking vinegar at their neighboring Whiskey Soda Lounge – no vegan food there) and the now-closed downtown Gin cart both offer memorable vegan versions that have I’ve really enjoyed in the past.

Off-the-beaten path street market in Pai, Thailand

I’m sure I’ll devote another a paragraph or two about being spoiled with fresh kaffir lime leaves, sensational curry pastes, chiles galore and truly discovering fresh galangal on my travels and local cooking classes, along with my first experiences with Thai food during my college days in Boston, but that’s for another day. 

Back to Portland and ranting aside – those three Thai spots I wanted to announce my feelings for include one SE Portland favorite, another downtown food cart, and a restaurant that almost stunned a friend and I with its gluten-free and vegan-friendliness. Oh, Portland. It’s been so splendidly long since I suspected fish sauce in my Thai food.

First up, Pad Thai Kitchen. This festive-light adorned spot on SE Belmont has long been known for its ease with vegan ordering, long before things were labeled on non-veg menus elsewhere around town. It was, and still is, a restaurant where you don’t have to investigate oyster sauce, shrimp paste, curry pastes and fish sauce as if you were solving a murder mystery, and the take out boxes are huge! Seriously, ask a fan about their favorite dish at Pad Thai Kitchen, and they will recommend you get it to-go.

Personally, I’m a Pad Thai Woon Sen (tiny glass noodles) and Pad Kee Mao, aka Drunken Noodles, kinda gal here, medium spicy. If you want fried tofu and vegetables, make sure you say just that: Vegan Tofu Veggie with your dish name. I took my younger brother for his first-ever Thai meal here almost a year ago, and he actually ate some! In terms of whatever authenticity means, their vegan options, at least, has a more Americanized feel. I’ll admit that this was the first Thai food I tried after returning from my travels last winter, and I just couldn’t get through more than a few bites of my Pad Kee Mao. That’s since calmed down after some more time passing, but you get that I’m trying to up my Thai-snob points here, or whatever. It was just that big difference I hadn’t been aware of before – but regardless, it’s satisfying.

Classic Pad Thai, Pad Thai Kitchen

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Drunken Noodles, Pad Thai Kitchen

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Pad Thai Woon Sen, Pad Thai Kitchen

Pad Thai Kitchen 2309 SE Belmont Portland, OR 97214 ~ menu

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Next up is a food cart, because it’s Portland and as much as I can’t keep up with  seeking out every single new vegan option in the cart hysteria, it’s no surprise that one is included. Ploy Thai: Ping Yang Kang Street food. This downtown cart’s menu and family experience hails from Thailand’s Nakhon Sawan marketplace, and the menu includes American favorites and popular Thai street food  I first visited Ploy during its very second week open last fall, and it quickly made it into my frequented cart-rotation (instantly replacing Just Thai, which was so appreciated for fast service and subbing a mushroom sauce for vegans, but had fallen out of my rotation due to quality and portion size decreases paired with a slight price increase). I dug that the vegetables at Ploy were just-cooked – especially the Japanese eggplant, brown rice was available, the fresh-fried Ota tofu (this is stand out for a food cart) and the growing vegan-friendliness.

On that first visit, I did need to explain that I was vegan and spoke with the counter woman about potential options and sauces she could leave out of dishes and what else she could incorporate. By my next visit, it was seemingly normal to note ‘vegan’ on your order form and the dish was verified – by the next, no questions required.

Their take out boxes are plentiful, and my go-to order is the Pad Eggplant with brown rice (once again, Vegan Tofu Veg), which features well sautéed chunks of purple eggplant stir-fried with lots of Thai basil (one of the best fresh herbs ever? I think so.), and assorted vegetables in a sweet soy-based sauce – ask for it VERY hot if you’re into that sort of thing. I will warn that there’s been more than once I’ve gone by and they’re closed for a few days – cart life - but there are roughly 57 other carts within a few blocks including Give Pizza a Chance and better yet, D.C. Vegetarian, so deal with it.

Pad Eggplant, Ploy Thai

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Ploy Thai

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Pad See Ew, Ploy Thai

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Pad Woon Sen, Ploy Thai

Ploy Thai SW 5th & SW Oak, downtown Portland ~ menu

The last on my recent list of Thai favorites is a restaurant that my friend Maeve and I tried on a whim one night after a happy hour. We wanted Thai, and we wanted it within a 5 block radius on Hawthorne, and voila!

My Thai had been open for year or two, and we knew friends had gone, but we’d  never actually *heard* anything it. No raves, no vegan complaints, no nothing. Huh, what was this Thai….bistro? We talked to a host upon entering and felt pacified about our vegan (and gluten-free friendly for Maeve) hopes & dreams, and sure enough, the menu, and then the dishes, confirmed this. On top of that, they have a full bar where you can savor a Lychee Old Fashioned and sample their two vegan house soups (out of three – the third is not vegan) while you wait. Everyone gets the tiny tray featured below. I’ve only gotten to go so far, but my take out Pad Thai standard was nicely met, being saucey, tangy (tamarind based vs. fish sauce) and generous, and I want to try more. Plus, seeing vegan and gluten-free labels at their soup station behind the bar is pretty cool, as was the unfortunate warning that their spring rolls are brushed with egg wash. The atmosphere and lighting are intimate for such a large front dining room, with a separate private room for a group dinner, and there are plenty of potentially intriguing curries – and a Khao Soi – I’d certainly like to see if they can veganize.

Soup samples, My Thai Bistro

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Photo credit: ericsteindler.com

My Thai Bistro 3500 SE Hawthorne Blvd Portland, OR 97214  ~ menu

If you have other recent area favorites, please do share These are by no means all of the Thai restaurants I’ve visited and enjoyed (I have enjoyed a meal or two in the past at Thai Food Cafe, but hey, I live in Southeast) in Portland, and while I prefer to cook at home, veganizing regional recipes and flipping through May Kaidee’s Thai Vegetarian and Vegan Cookbook (which sidenote galore, will be featured during MoFo, including my not-forgotten class experience at May Kaidee), more remain on my to-try list, including the new Samui Thai on SE Hawthorne, because take out happens. If I’m considering take out or even dining out, my first thought is nearly always Thai-inspired. And while this isn’t Portland-centric, I must send you to the impressive all-vegan Thai buffet Araya’s, in Seattle. Come on.

Birthday visit to Araya’s lunch buffet, Seattle

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Araya’s, Seattle

10 thoughts on “Portlanding: Thai Cuisine

  1. Mmm, I just got takeout from Pad Thai Kitchen tonight. We are weekly visitors – they love my kid! Haha. I’m with you, the drunken noodles (we affectionately call them “squishy noodles” in this house) are one of my all-time favorite comfort meals. =)

  2. I love the combination of your Tuesday & Wednesday themes, I’m doing a much worse job at sticking to mine this week! I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for these Thai places when I’m in Portland for VVC – especially the place with the Pas See Ew, it’s my favourite.

  3. I just got those 2 dishes at Pad Thai Kitchen yesterday! But I keep accidentally ordering the Pad Kee Mao, when I mean to order the Pad See Ew, dangit!
    I never specify “vegan”, does that mean it’s not? They don’t taste like fish sauce and I get the impression from previous ordering that they don’t use it on my orders. Or perhaps when ordered with “tofu and no egg”, they just assume vegan…
    I should try My Thai since it’s so darn close to me…

    • Karlsbad! This is funny because 1) I think I first went with *you* to PTK and 2) I thought you were the one who had gone there!

      I think you’re fine because they’re so used to vegans/vegetarians – and you! <3 Let's really do lunch soon. Really.

  4. the one thing that i have been unable to find in pdx is a decent peanut sauce or peanut curry. swimming angels/rama tofu/pra ram etc. is a mainstay of thai buddhist cookery and every rendition i’ve had in pdx is an anemic watery tasteless mess. flash fried wide noodles bathed in pungent red curry peanut sauce is my favorite thai dish!

    have you tried chiang mai on hawthorne? their drier peppery drunken noodles are more my style.

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