You know this by now: Portland's best Thai food is also some of the best anywhere in the country. We even had to donate our spare Pok Poks to New York City. Without leaving the city, Portland diners get national-caliber Chiang Mai cart fare, khao man gai and Kuaytiew noodles.
And in a little backroom tucked behind PaaDee restaurant, Akkapong Earl Ninsom just upped the stakes again. Unless you eat regularly at the Nahm Bangkok in Thailand, you probably haven't tried anything on Lang Baan's ever-changing tasting menu.
And yet somehow it's less intimidating than Whiskey Soda Lounge, let alone Pok Pok. Lang Baan is the friendliest prix-fixe meal in Portland—so casual they might forget your serving spoon, or climb up on your seat to mess with the curtains. The restaurant's menu is nine courses at $40 or 11 at $60, and parks all the ramshackle wonder of a Thai marketplace into its motley-wooded, open-kitchen tasting room.
Photos by Nolan Calisch
Menus change monthly. March featured Royal Thai, and April Southern Thai. Northern Thai is next, in May. But each of the first two menus have begun with a snack of miang som-o, which compresses every flavor group in the Thai repertoire into a one-bite salad: salty-savory shrimp, sweet coconut, a jolt of chili and a tart burst of pomelo on an earthy, bitter betel leaf. It doesn't so much cleanse the palate as prime it for a show, like a bite before a kiss. Also stalwart on the snack menu is sticky rice infused with watermelon water, then left to dry into little rice-cake crisps. These serve as ground for a Dungeness crab salad or, even better, a citric, sweet-coconut dish showcasing the natural affinity of pork for peanuts.
April's Southern menu opted for measured herbal sweetness over that region's famed heat—much in line with the balance-in-all-things cuisine of the Thai royal family's kitchen. Much at Lang Baan puts the lime—or the tamarind—in the coconut, including the menu's standout in both months, the lobster salad dish on the 11-course menu. The lobster is paired with the grapey pop of rambutan fruit amid bitter pennywort herb, mint, tamarind, coconut and spice. The flavors and textures are each present singly, but play intensely off the others—a bit like a harmony with one note a half-step sharp (the pennywort, in this case) that calls all the other notes into piercing relief.
The other standout dish, the nahm prik ong kai khem, sai-aou on the March menu, was a mouthful in more ways than one. Centering around a wildly intense cherry tomato-and-pork relish, the dish is a choose-your-own adventure of flavors, from vegetable base to richly savory salted duck egg and spicy-sweet Chiang Mai sausage. A green mango salad on the April menu is crisped up with a filamented catfish "net" that's a magic trick of texture.
Desserts have been a splendid blend of sweet and savory, from black-sesame rice treats to April's grace note, a cup of pandanus fruit "noodles" in coconut cream with jasmine shaved ice and melon. It's a tour of sweet-bitter textures that is the essence of summer in springtime.
The wine pairings don't always complement that odd combination of delicacy and spice inveterate to Thai food. Avoid craft beer and go for a simple Thai lager, or hit up the cocktail menu. The whiskey-tamarind and cognac-mango combos of the PaaDee and 12-Mile Limit ($8 each), respectively, offer the blend of spice, sweet and bitter needed to stand up to the food without clashing.
But a difficulty with Lang Baan is that even familiar and inexpensive Thai food is so complex and intense it's a high-wire act for the restaurant to justify the tasting menu's $40 or $60 price over even Ninsom's own excellent PaaDee. A hiramasa ceviche, for example, was an elevated yum neua with fish, a Dungeness wilted into sweet curry, and a perfectly pleasant pineapple-soy short rib recalled Korean or Hawaiian fare.
Really it's the variety of experience that sets Lang Baan apart from other fine Thai in town. If you're willing to let the budget be damned, it's the most exciting Thai dinner in Portland.
- Order this: The $40 meal, plus a cocktail or two. Youâll be full, buzzed and happy.
EAT: Lang Baan, 6 SE 28th Ave., 971-344-2564. 6 and 8:30 pm seatings Thursday-Saturday. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.