About halfway through a meal at Woodstock's Nudi Noodle Place, my dining companion looked up and said, "This tastes good, but I feel like I don't understand what's going on anymore."
The tiny, friendly Thai-fusion restaurant—in both food and décor—is at once comforting and disorienting. Upon entering, diners are greeted by a nonfunctional glass door hanging on the wall, emblazoned with the words "BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE THIS WAY PLEASE." (We followed the arrow, on the assumption the sign was generous in spirit.) Meanwhile, the figurative symbols for man and woman hang in 3-foot-tall, artificial-turf cutouts on the restroom doors; the bar is girded with tree bark and irregular panels of acid-washed metal; and the dining room's chandelier has been overtaken by thick, stringy moss.
The deadpan whimsy of Nudi's aesthetic seems to have descended from anywhere but where we are, a tract of Southeast Woodstock Boulevard best known for third-generation sausage-making and amber-preserved reconditionings of the old-timey Lutz Tavern and Delta Cafe.
The restaurant's gift for idiosyncratic presentation extends to the food. The meaty filling for the spicy-sweet duck wrap appetizer ($10) arrives in a glass bowl, with a plastic syringe of plum sauce plunged deep within. The rice-and-coriander hot wings ($8) come awkwardly whole-limbed in a shakeable paper bag, while the wafer-thin, tempura-fried pickles ($8) are piled atop a perfect circle of hot sauce, centered on a perfectly square plate—a geometric puzzle as treatise in food design.
Never mind that the pickles' hot sauce tastes almost exactly like TacoTime's, a crisp pickle burrito in art-deco format. It's brilliantly aestheticized trash, and guiltily delicious.
Asian fusion has become overfamiliar and falsely upscale, with exotic ingredients added as accents to continental ideas—Saucebox, for example, still oh-so-innovatively douses salmon fillets with soy—but Nudi is entirely the opposite proposition: Cooks with Thai sensibilities are at cheerful, casual play with our own local bounty, in ways wholly alien to Western palates. It is a restaurant one might expect to find in a midrange Bangkok hotel, not on Woodstock Boulevard.
The carbonara belly ($13) combines spaghetti with charred pork belly, pumpkin chunks, spinach, cherry tomatoes, almonds, Parmesan, bacon and garlic, with a mint pesto on the side. It is as confusing as it sounds, as if a sudden late-night inspiration in a pan. The Angus gravy noodle ($10) is essentially a spiced sloppy Joe with ground beef and a wide rice-noodle base, far from refined but deeply satisfying in a way that recalls childhood meals. Nudi's khao tang is served in canape form ($6) rather than dipped—coconut-pork-shrimp sauce draped over crisped rice crackers—and is approachable and light.
The lak sa ($12)—denoted helpfully on the menu as Nudi customers' favorite—is kitchen-sink Indonesian, with pork, shrimp and egg pulled into a peanut curry. It is, oddly, much more familiar than the Westernized fare. A semisweet dessert with coconut-milk flan baked inside a wee green pumpkin on a bed of coconut sauce ($6) is likewise more traditional Thai, and entirely successful.
The menu changes seasonally—meaning a switch to spring produce is soon forthcoming—but after eating half the fall-winter menu, I've precisely half a notion what's found there. Barbecue pork sticks, Italian-style kee mow and coriander spinach-noodle duck remain wholly a mystery. Not everything at Nudi succeeds, but each meal is guaranteed to surprise.
- Order this: For a light meal, grab the duck wrap ($10), khao tang canapes ($6) and the pumpkin dessert ($6) to split. For hearty eaters, the twisted diner Americana of the Angus gravy noodle ($10) is irresistible.
- Iâll pass: The carbonara belly ($13) is a bit too excursionary with its ingredient list; the winter salads underwhelm.
EAT: Nudi Noodle Place, 4310 SE Woodstock Blvd., 477-7425, nudipdx.com. 11 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm Monday-Friday, noon-10 pm Saturday, noon-9 pm Sunday. $-$$.