Ricker, of course, is the farang face of traditional, labor-intensive Thai fare in this country, with Pok Pok outposts not only throughout Portland but also in Los Angeles and New York. Sen Yai was the fourth leg in his Portland Pok Pok empire, serving up mostly noodles and cocktails.
Some of Sen Yai's dishes will move to Ricker's Whiskey Soda Lounge bar—essentially the spill valve for Pok Pok across the street on Division—including breakfast items Sen Yai had already discontinued. The breakfast custards turned out to be our favorites on the menu when Sen Yai opened.
But the reason Ricker cites for Sen Yai's closure is a bit of a head-scratcher for us.
Alongside rising rents, Ricker cited Portlanders' preconceived notions of "ethnic food" as "cheap food" as a major reason for Sen Yai's closure.
The restaurant hovered in the $10-to-$13 range for its noodles, ranging from tamarind-pork bone-broth with instant ramen, to dishes with four other noodle styles.
Quoth Brooks and Ricker:
And yet, Ricker can’t sidestep the idea that people expect Asian or “ethnic” food to be cheap. “People say, ‘I can go to a pho restaurant and get a dish twice as big for $8.’ I can’t compete with a low-cost commodity model,” laments Ricker. A good example is Sen Yai’s yen ta fo, a beautiful combo of broth, fish balls and wide noodles (and one of my favorite dishes not making the transition over to Whiskey Soda Lounge). “It’s a great dish,” Ricker says. “But it requires two kinds of homemade stocks, four kinds of fish balls, and a vegetable that’s difficult to get part of the year. We don’t sell that many bowls. Damn, it’s too bad. Not a happy thing. But it shows how labor intensive this stuff can be. There’s no machine making all those fish balls. It’s a guy standing there using his hands to make this stuff. Unfortunately, that’s not how we perceive this kind of food in America. It’s heartbreaking to me.”
It's an interesting point—and anecdotally it seems to hold up, especially when some in our office hold that street tacos should always cost $1 each, almost by definition.
But for a number of reasons, the charge that his restaurant fell victim to ethnocentrism seems a bit surprising coming from Ricker.
The same problem certainly hasn't plagued Pok Pok, where it'd be rare to get out under $20 on food items. And Langbaan, run by Thai native Akkapong "Earl" Ninsom, is booked six months in advance on a $75 Thai tasting menu so laborious it doubles as an art project—and that's without the drink pairings.
The problem also doesn't seem to have felled Mee Sen or Tarad Thai or Paa Dee or Nakhon, all of which have dishes in a comparable price range as Sen Yai.
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, these competing restaurants' willingness to raise their prices—not to mention up their sourcing game and offer more unfamiliar and regional dishes—is probably attributable to changes in local perceptions of Thai food helped along by…Ricker himself.
Whatever the reason for the closure, Sen Yai will be succeeded in its Division Street space by another upscale ethnic-ish food spot—a "tequila taco honky-tonk rock-'n'-roll joint" called Honky Tonk Taco House, from Clyde Common's Nate Tilden and Carlo Lamagna, alongside Olympia Provisions' Tyler Gaston and nearby Richmond Bar's Nick Gusikoff.
Ricker did not immediately respond to requests for comment.