Nakhon and Mee Gin Thai Restaurants Face Off on Hawthorne

Double Thai'd

Thai restaurants used to all be called Beau Thai, or Thai Me Up! Thai Me Down!, or thaiPad. And they all had pad Thai. But ever since farang ambassador Pok Pok started dappling its papaya salad with soft-shell crab, local Thai spots have begun repping regional plates and unfamiliar spices alongside the drunken noodles.

Within a month of each other last fall, two Thai restaurants—Nakhon and Mee Gin Soul Kitchen—opened a few blocks apart on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Neither menu looks like any other in Portland. And both advertise ingredients that are either sourced fresh and local, or imported directly from Thailand—on dishes whose prices can climb near $20.

Of the two, Mee Gin Soul Kitchen is the more self-consciously upscale. It looks like a hyper-modern Bangkok bar gone native in Portland, with chalkboard specials, bulbs hanging naked from wires, and pictures of plows painted on earth-toned walls.

Mee Gin's menu is as playful as the decor, mixing old family recipes with melting-pot street fare like pesto-herbed Thai "spaghetti" that looks like chow mein ($10-$15), a $22 lamb massamun plate with bones arranged like crossed swords, and a "New Zealand" garlic mussel dish ($14) as familiar to the streets of Bangkok as a Turkish-style kebab is to Berlin.

Mee Gin photo by Emily Joan Greene

Stick to the simple dishes, though. A humble mushroom and cabbage soup was mild and lightly floral with lemongrass, a comfort for the sick or homesick. A lightly crisped, tender bok choy dish salted up with soy and sun-dried mackerel ($8) was both brilliant bar snack and a solid accompaniment to the best entree I tried: a lightly salt-and-peppered, sliced rib-eye steak called the Crying Tiger ($16), served up with a tart tamarind sauce.

Unfortunately, the rest of the menu wasn't nearly as successful: Those mussels were distressingly hard-tacked to their shells or sealed shut. A chicken avocado curry ($11-$16) had richly fatty sauce, but the huge chunks of avocado in it were woefully underripe and left to drown on the plate. And the sticky, now obligatory fish-sauce wings are better had elsewhere.

On the cocktail side, a flight of Thai whiskeys and rum was unexpected and welcome, but the restaurant's namesake Mee Gin Mee Gin, a chili-spiced gin cocktail ($9), was so overpowered by triple sec and pineapple juice it tasted a bit like paint smells.

Nakhon photo by Emily Joan Greene

In decor, Nakhon is Mee Gin's exact opposite. Located in a ramshackle house that most recently hosted the Hawthorne Street Cafe—with a framed tile sign from that restaurant still on the wall in a tucked-away room—the place, staffed by a lot of the original crew from Morrison Street's Tarad Thai, looks like it should still serve marionberry pie and pancakes.

It is instead devoted to the pungent, famously searing food of Thailand's deep south. Earl Ninsom of PaaDee will soon open a spot on Northeast Killingsworth Street devoted to Hat Yai fried chicken, but his brother, Nakhon co-owner Nattanop Ninsom, beat him to the punch with lovely, light-battered bird cuts ($12) marinated beneath the skin and served with sweet-hot dipping sauce, though it's far better with the bright pepper-vinegar sauce served with the tamarind sea bass.

Flip the menu to the backside containing the southern specialties, in the knowledge that if you order them "like you would eat them," the dishes will be hot enough to lance your sinuses via your gums.

The shrimp- or pork-studded pad sator ($12) features south Thailand's most prized gourd, the stink bean; it's bright green, pinto-sized, smells like a gas leak and holds up beautifully against shrimp-pasted ferment and spice.

The all-meat kua kling ($12)—essentially a curry that uses pork rather than coconut milk as its base—is a riot of heat and funk, like a sweaty James Brown back in the day. The dish's uncanny flavor becomes quickly addictive, as does the adrenaline rush while eating it. You can order "mild," but then why are you here?

Nakhon photo by Emily Joan Greene

To soothe yourself, get the tom kha soup ($6). While many Thai spots use a mix, Nakhon's is fresh and milky and rich as any foie gras, with surprisingly gentle spicing: It could be a coastal coconut chowder. On the snack menu, kai look koei ($7)—literally, "son-in-law eggs"—is a soft-boiled Thai take on the scotch egg, molten within and fried to a sticky shell of tamarind.

Just avoid the rock-hard pork belly, and the disappointingly mushy sea bass ($15 for the tamarind-sauced version). And note that service is often glacial, even bringing a bottle of beer.

Mee Gin's pretty dining room, varied menu and friendly, efficient service has so far been drawing the bigger crowds on Hawthorne. But given the choice of flashy decor with no heat, and searing heat with no flash, I'll take Nakhon any day of the week.

EAT: Nakhon, 3354 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 971-279-5395. 11:30 am-11 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 am-1 am Friday, noon-1 am Saturday, noon-8 pm Sunday. Mee Gin Soul Kitchen, 3616 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 231-9898. Noon-9:30 pm Sunday-Thursday, noon-10 pm Friday-Saturday.

Willamette Week

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.