Morning Sen

Andy Ricker's new noodle joint has great noodles, even better custard.

Andy Ricker is too busy to gather coconuts. Makes sense, given the Pok Pok owner has six restaurants on two coasts, a nationally distributed line of drinking vinegars and a cookbook coming out this fall.

Lat Khao, the Thai curry house he intended for the former Kappaya space, got lost in the shuffle. "Just the amount of work making curry paste would be insane," Ricker told Portland Monthly in February, saying it would be tough to get enough coconuts, even frozen. "I can't be running around the city looking for...coconut meat."

Sen Yai is his replacement. The noodle house took over the oddly shaped, bright blue-green building two blocks east of Pok Pok in May. If Pok Pok sometimes feels like a cozy maze of tarp-sided shanty shacks, Sen Yai is a diner inside an auto repair shop. The bright main dining room, decorated with Thai cooking posters and soundtracked by Thai pop music, is surrounded by outdoor picnic tables under a high overhang, where your waitress may awkwardly offer your food to the party seated next to you or you may get wet or cold. The namesake, a big, supple rice noodle made fresh in house, is the star. Two other dishes actually use instant noodles.

Sen Yai's breakfast menu is its biggest revelation. Soup is breakfast in much of Southeast Asia, which is why Portland's best pho shops open by 9 am. Ricker offers three soups, along with toast, custard, runny eggs and a steamed pork bun ($3.50, unremarkable but for its price).

Ricker's kuaytiaw naam kai soup ($9), which also appears on the dinner menu, is tasty but a little flat—the broth is advertised as "simple" and is, so spend some time spooning in sweet chilies and white pepper. Thankfully Ricker found enough coconuts for the sangkhaya ($4 with toast), a rich coconut custard flavored with the pandan leaf that makes Pok Pok's drinking water so great. I'd gladly buy a bucket of it to dip thick, lightly toasted slabs of rich white bread from An Xuyen Bakery that is surprisingly superior to finger-sized fried crullers called patangko ($3 for six), not quite crunchy, not quite soft, and served at room temperature. Gooey coddled eggs in a clear glass ($6) are another option. Breakfast crowds have been light, and Sen Yai's patio is a great place early in the day, when oppressively peppy Thai pop music and passing traffic on busy Division Street enliven, rather than annoy.

At 11 am, the crowds start showing up, including many families drawn to a big-name chef's cheaper, noodle-forward and kid-friendly spinoff. Sen Yai noodles are wonderful in phat si ew ($11), a dish that's a lot like familiar drunken noodles, wok-fried to a slight char with small pieces of pork and sliced Chinese broccoli stalks and tops. My dining companion was similarly impressed with ba mii tom yam muu haeng ($12.50), wheat noodles served with broth on the side and topped with crumbled pork, dry pork medallions, chili vinegar and long beans that she compared to the newly departed Wafu's much-missed aburasoba.

A pair of rice dishes includes another standout, kai kaphrao khai dao ($12.50), fried bits of minced chicken and long beans flavored with onion, basil and soy sauce served alongside a big pile of jasmine rice and the runny yolk of a fried egg to glue it together.

Sen Yai does have a few duds: Our vegan version of the flame-kissed spinach appetizer borrowed from Pok Pok (phak boong fai daeng, $9.50) was a lightly seasoned platter of hollow spinach stalk and foliage in thin, salty sauce.

And then there's the ramen. We tried the vegetarian version of the Mama phat ($9), stir-fried instant noodles with green onion, bean sprouts, cilantro and a fried egg. The noodles, which Ricker calls "a national obsession" in Thailand, where carts and restaurants serve them, seem out of place, like something a broke college student would cook for a fifth date, or something prepared by a busy man who barely has time to eat—let alone search for frozen coconut.

  1. Order this: Sangkhaya with toast ($4) or phat si ew ($11).
  2. I’ll pass: Pork bun, any Mama ramen dish.

EAT: Sen Yai, 3384 SE Division St., 236-3573, 8 am-10 pm daily. $$.

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.