601 SE Morrison St., 234-4102, taradpdx.com. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, late night Friday-Saturday.
Tarad Thai's interior looks like a '70s Chiang Mai bodega designed by Hollywood, a home away from home to Viet-vet expats who moved to the Thai countryside to find their souls. Bits of domestic furniture and door moldings have been cobbled together into market shelves holding items from curry to hot pots to toothpaste.
It also sells some of the best Thai food in the city. The gaeng oam hot pot dish ($12) billows with flavorful herbs, chili, lemongrass and kaffir leaf, the real wonder remains the audacity of the broth's sheer meatiness. The gaeng hung lay ($12) is a stewy showcase of tender pork and pork belly melded so completely with copious ginger that spice and meat become indistinguishable. They have transcended their oppositions, like the punch line to a Hegelian dialectic.
Meanwhile, the som tum papaya salad ($7), served with fresh tomato and perfectly cooked shrimp ($3 extra), is not only at least as good as Pok Pok's version, it's damn near as good as Pok Pok's salad used to be, with bright lime and a lingering chili spice that offers no quarter to the tourist, but doesn't railroad the flavor. The pad Thai ($10) maintains a similar brightness, without the sludgy peanut overload that ruins far too many renditions.
Even overfamiliar dishes such as pad kee mao ($9) are revivified; we got the often-gloopy dish as a takeout order, and were rewarded in a cardboard box with the satisfying firmness of fresh rice noodles, fresher basil and well-balanced spice.
The place is a beautiful refuge from the nearby club district; if you don't find your soul there, you'll at least know what soul tastes like. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
3145 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 234-6192, chiangmaipdx.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Chiang Mai, specializing in the foods of its namesake northern Thailand city, is among a handful of Thai spots that have elevated themselves above the pack, eschewing crappy pad thai and gloppy cloying peanut sauce. The menu is lengthy, but a safe bet is to order from the regional specialties listed on the first page. Best of the bunch may be khao tod naem kook ($13), a platter of crispy rice mixed with bits of fermented ("sour") sausage, ground pork, peanuts, chopped shallots and dried chilies served with lettuce leaves to make your own wrap. These and the other dishes can be adjusted on a zero to four scale to suit diners' heat tolerance, and the lunch menu offers a price dip to suit diners' wallet tolerance. MICHAEL C. ZUSMAN.
Nong's Khao Man Gai
609 SE Ankeny St., Suite B, 740-2907, khaomangai.com. Lunch and dinner daily. 411 SW College St., 971-255-3480; Southwest 10th Avenue & Alder Street, 971-255-3480. Lunch Monday-Friday.
Tips for successful dining at Nong's: 1) The southeast spot serving up Nong's Portland-institution of khao man gai (chicken and rice, $7-$8) is an indoor walk-up with cozy seating space, allowing you to enjoy your Nong's at ease, as opposed to the grab 'n' go at its food-cart locations downtown and at PSU; 2) If you don't show up before 1 pm, all locations will most likely be sold out of the crispy fried chicken skins ($1), which are worth getting your act together for; 3) As obsessed with the ginger-chile sauce as we are? You can buy it bottled online. And though the Nong's website is coy about the sauce's ingredients, a detailed listing exists at Allrecipes.com…if you really think you could ever replace her food-cart original. GRACE STAINBACK.
Pad Thai Kitchen
2309 SE Belmont St., 232-8766. Lunch and dinner daily.
A local's favorite, Pad Thai Kitchen keeps its comfortable teal booths filled with loyal customers chowing down on heaping plates of classic Ameri-Thai dishes like deep-fried spring rolls, basil fried rice and, obviously, the omnipresent namesake noodles. A "medium-spicy" panang curry ($7-$9) was sweet and mild enough to be the Gerber baby food version of itself, as was a pile of drunken noodles ($7-$9) that were so soft that they disintegrated at the touch of a chopstick. But the salad rolls and tom yum soup were delicious, redolent of lemongrass and filled with fresh vegetables. At these prices, and in these serving sizes, why complain? AARON SPENCER.
3924 N Mississippi Ave., 445-1909, meesenpdx.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Though both run by Earl Ninsom, Mee-Sen is such a distant cousin to likewise excellent PaaDee that they could probably marry and have children without birth defects—perhaps that's what Ninsom's new fine-dining Thai spot Lang Baan will become. But at Mee-Sen, tucked away in a condo strip mall but charmingly ramshackle within, noodles are king, as is a lightly tart-sweet fish sauce that carves out its own personal territory on the palate. Choose among five types of housemade noodles and get them wet in broth or take them dry. Hint: dry + woon sen. But for comfort, also don't miss the khao soi gai ($11) for its light, sweet curry and drumstick so tender you'll get confused and think you can eat the bone. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
8200 NE Siskiyou St., 265-8972, mekongbistro.com. Lunch, dinner and late night daily.
Much of the menu at this cavernous Cambodian-Thai-Vietnamese-Laotian spot on Northeast 82nd Avenue could be intimidating, but for the disarming warmth of the staff. Everyone here seems happy to steer you around the expansive menu which, before you get off the first page, includes everything from avocado cheese puffs and salad rolls to frog legs and fried quail. There's a full line of Thai noodle dishes plus Khmer soups of all stripes, all with generous infusions of fish sauce. Most surprising, a rich dark yellow Cambodian crepe with chicken, onions, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Sok Sab Bai
2625 SE 21st Ave., 971-255-0292, soksabbai.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Maybe you've had a fancy version of pork rinds before. But they're nothing like the crunchy, warm skins with a sprinkle of Japanese seven-spice chicken skins at Sok Sab Bai. The Cambodian spot, tucked into an old house next to St. Jack on Southeast 21st Avenue, won me over with just 10 minutes and $3. Start with the skins, but also check out amok trey ($10), Cambodia's national dish: tender chunks of steamed catfish marinated in coconut milk and fish paste. Nyno's chicken plate ($11) is an even better bargain—a large portion of grilled chicken slathered in Nyno Thol's hand-tremblingly addictive Da sauce, which punches sweet, hot and salty buttons in a way that leaves you eyeing everything on the table, scrambling to find another suitable receptacle. MARTIN CIZMAR.