Hat Yai Is the Best New Thai Spot Portland has Seen in a Long Time

The depth of flavor is irresistible at such a casual restaurant.

In America, the pigs say oink. In Mexico, roosters say quiquiriqui. And in Thailand, the sound a stone pestle makes when grinding lemongrass, coriander seeds and bird's eye chilies in its matching mortar is transliterated as pok pok.

The story of how Andy Ricker named his decade-old Division Street Thai restaurant is in his book, which turns the mortar and pestle into a metaphor for the Thai perspective on cooking—spice is life, and food processors can't match the vibrant flavors you get from a curry made by crushing garlic and galangal with an ancient tool. But until a recent meal at Hat Yai, I'd never actually heard the kitchen grinding.

Hat Yai (Christine Dong)

Hat Yai is a new counter-service space from Earl Ninsom, the restaurateur behind the fairly typical Thai spot PaaDee and the prix-fixe supper club located behind it, Langbaan. In some ways, Hat Yai is the least ambitious of the three, wedged into a narrow slot between Podnah's Pit and Handsome Pizza on Northeast Killingsworth Street, and furnished with tiny tables that can't accommodate a full meal without some Jenga. You're paying about $25 per person plus tip, but there's no attempt to course out the meal—the type of unfortunate jagged edges familiar from Ninsom's other spots.

Related: What's with all the Thai Restaurants in Portland?

And Hat Yai is not perfect. Two of the three cocktails tasted like canned fruit salad (get the still-too-sweet Tamarind Whiskey Smash, $9), and the beer is mostly overpriced Asian imports ($5 for a 12-ounce bottle of Tiger) except for Double Mountain Kölsch ($5 for a draft pint) and the 1.6-liter bottle of Hite ($12 for 54 ounces).

Hat Yai (Christine Dong)

But about that mortar and pestle. There's one next to the counter, and you might hear a cook pulverizing peppers as you eat, to extraordinary effect. Even if you've eaten through the Pok Pok menu and read Ricker's book, you're in for a trip; if you flip to that cookbook's index, you'll find most of Hat Yai's menu unmentioned.

Related: Cheap Eats 2015: Thai/Loatian Food

Hat Yai is named for a city on the southern edge of Thailand near the Malaysian border, 1,000 miles due south of Chiang Mai, where Pok Pok draws much of its inspiration. It's a different world.

Southern Thailand is known for its spicy fare, and my two favorite dishes at Hat Yai both fit the form.

The first was the house curry, made from red chili, cilantro, cumin, cinnamon, galangal coconut oil and coconut milk, which comes in a small bowl for $4. To turn that into an entree, you'll need to spend $3 on rice or roti, saucer-sized, pan-fried flatbread you may have seen next to the naan at an Indian restaurant. That red curry contained such a rich, deep flavor, it was tough to single out any ingredient—on one visit, it was an effect as much as it was a flavor, like bass you feel more than hear. It comes with beef cheek or chicken, but I prefer it as a side dip.

The second was ground pork ($12). It was also balanced, but by competing zings—bright citrus, rich pork and searing spice. The heat prickled, but it was grounded by a refreshing earthiness.

Hat Yai (Christine Dong)

Hat Yai, the city, is famous for its fried chicken, which is imitated across Thailand. The birds are battered in rice flour and coated in crushed peppercorns and fried shallots. I tried a half-chicken ($12 with sticky rice) on all three visits and found it tasty each time, but also rather inconsistent. On my first visit, the coating was thick and bready. On the next, it was thin but hard and sugary, almost like a caramel apple. On the third, it was thin but light on sugar. I preferred the thinner, sweeter shell, which juxtaposed nicely with the fried shallots, but it's hard to find fault with any of them.

That's not true of the Hat Yai as a whole—a month in, there's much to improve about the drinks, service and space—but the depth of flavor is irresistible at such a casual restaurant.

So I say pok pok pok pok pok pok—keep grindin'.

Order this: Get two roti with one curry dipping cup ($3 for each roti, $4 for the curry), split a whole chicken ($23) and a 1.6-liter bottle of Hite ($12).

EAT: Hat Yai, 1605 NE Killingsworth St., 503-764-9701. 11:30 am-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday.

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