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December 7th, 2011 KELLY CLARKE | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Soul Food, Thai Style

Manao ditches the pad Thai and brings on the pork knuckle.

foodanddrink_manao_3805KNUCKLE DOWN: Manao is a humble strip-mall restaurant with some seriously impressive eats. - IMAGE: Amaren Colosi
Pok Pok has fish sauce wings; Manao has pig knuckles. That’s not to say that Chef Ekkachai “Chew” Sakkayasukkalawong’s quiet new Thai spot in Sellwood will grow to inspire the same legion of acolytes and spin-off restaurants. It won’t. But Southeast Portlanders ought to be proud to have the former Pok Pok cook’s interesting roster of Northern and Southern Thai dishes in the neighborhood.

Instead of standards like pad Thai, the unassuming strip-mall eatery boasts dishes like kaa muu tod ($11), a Northern Thai/Chinese recipe that slowly stews a porker’s knuckle in a heady spice-spiked broth, then dunks the whole thing in a deep-fat fryer. (They also serve a similar dish at Bangkok native Chew’s former haunt, Ping, but it’ll set you back $20.) Chew’s knuckle is a three-layer dynamo of crispy skin and tender meat separated by a half-inch of gelatinous fat so sticky that your fingers will adhere to your lips as you try to lick them clean. Think of it as Thai soul food. Tear a chunk of pork off the bone and squash it up with the tart mustard greens, pickled eggs and jasmine rice that come with the pig; then spoon some porky five-spice jus all over it. And top that off with the housemade sour yellow chili sauce that also comes with the dish: a thin, hot, vinegary relish that amps up every flavor it comes into contact with. (If Andy Ricker can sell his drinking vinegars, Chew should do the same with this condiment.)

The specials menu includes lots of other funky gems, from sweet pork curry so thick it’s more like a braise (kaeng hung lay, $11) to crunchy squares of fried tofu drizzled with a very strong sour/sweet sauce ($4). There’s garlicky pork ribs and two kinds of chicken wings. Skip the Manao wings (they taste like the puny, less-sticky cousins of Ike’s fish sauce wings) and devour the southern Thai-style ones (kai tod haad yai, $12), which have a peppery fried chickenlike coating and a sweeter, spicy flavor courtesy of brown sugar and oyster sauce. There’s a long list of salads as well, from green lettuce to green papaya. In fact, one of the best things on offer is a bracingly fresh lemongrass and cabbage salad packed with chunks of squid, shrimp and slices of cold pork (phlaa saam klur, $12) that pops with the flavors of lime, Thai bird chili, mint and a bright palm sugar and fish sauce dressing.

In fact, there’s enough tasty, less familiar dishes at Manao that you can happily skip most of Thai takeout standards. That’s good, because they are the dullest things on the menu. Although the veggies were crisp, a recent pad see ew stir fry ($9.50) was a one-note bummer with gummy, soy-dressed noodles. And the tom kha soup ($8.50), with its standard mix of coconut milk, lemongrass and kaffir lime, was thin and bland. 

Opt for the weirder, spicier stuff and you’ll be rewarded. And order some roti ($1.50) while you’re at it—Manao is one of the few places in town that serves the thin, crunchy South Asian fry bread. You can get it plain as a side order like sticky rice or eat it drizzled with chocolate sauce and condensed milk like a S’mores-esque dessert crêpe.

You didn’t really want pad Thai and green curry again anyway, did you? 

  • Order this: Pork knuckle, Southern Thai wings, lemongrass salad.
  • Best deal: A puckery green papaya salad is big enough to split ($8).
  • I’ll pass: Pad see ew and other takeout standards.

EAT: Manao, 7202 SE Milwaukie Ave., 236-0008, manaopdx.com. 11:30 am-3 pm and 4:30-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-3 pm and 4:30-9:30 pm Friday-Saturday. $.

 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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