In another bubble of the multiverse, Farmhouse Kitchen was just named the Oregonian's restaurant of the year.
Farmhouse comes from San Francisco, where the Michelin Guide named it one of the Bay Area's best inexpensive restaurants—inexpensiveness being a relative descriptor for a restaurant that charges $10 for vegan salad rolls. In May, Farmhouse took over from another ambitious Thai spot, Nakhon, bringing traditional dishes like tom yum soup, spicy papaya salad and the famous rice-battered fried chicken from the city of Hat Yai.
In an alternate universe, Oregonian food critic Karen Brooks, entering her third decade at the local daily, praises the Portland Farmhouse's wild, new Thai dishes as "epicly swoon-worthy." Over there, Trump is still scamming everyone involved in the condominium trade and Pok Pok's Andy Ricker is still working as a house painter and playing bass in bands that sound like Elliott Smith.
Our current timeline is dark—the Oregonian's critic didn't name a restaurant of the year in his annual food issue, and Karen Brooks is writing about vegan push-pops for the little-read city magazine—but at least Portland has long had gobsmacking Hat Yai fried chicken coated in crushed peppercorns and fried shallots then dipped into the Malay-style house curry. You can get a whole bird with sticky rice for $23 at Hat Yai on Northeast Killingsworth.
Which is all to say Portland is spoiled when it comes to Thai. We might even have the country's second best Thai food scene after Los Angeles. I've been to Farmhouse five times and been impressed, but the best Thai meal I've had this year was at the new Pok Pok Northwest.
The one true breakout star at Farmhouse is a rustic recipe befitting the restaurant's name, a slow-cooked beef short rib called panang neua ($25.95). It's served bone-in, Flintstones-style, over a bed of bright blue jasmine rice and dressed with a punchy orange panang curry. It's a beautiful and imposing plate, with fall-apart tender beef getting outrageous depth from the hot and nutty curry.
That same meaty rib makes an appearance in my favorite soup, the "24 hours beef noodle soup" ($21.95), which is built off veal broth and egg noodles, then brightened with herbs.
Another must-order is the "herbal rice salad" ($13.95), also known as "khao yum," in which you toss up a list of almost a dozen ingredients, most prominently shredded green mango, bright blue jasmine rice, crispy shallots, toasted coconut, peanuts and cilantro. The dressing of kaffir lime, tamarind dressing and lemongrass makes it outright addictive. For an ideal meal, order the rib with the salad and an appetizer of the spicy larb tuna ($12.95), which uses tuna and sour mango plus herbs to be dipped with wonton chips.
If Farmhouse's owners had surveyed the city and found other such niches, it could really be a standout. Unfortunately, much of the menu covers well-trodden ground, served at premium prices but without the superlative flavors to match.
That starts with the Hat Yai chicken ($20.95), which has undergone a few iterations. They're on the right track, as the most recent version was the best: a flattened boneless breast in a thick but brittle batter that recalled Long John Silver's (in the good way). It's satisfying with the roti and yellow curry, but lacks the intense depth of flavor you get from the Hat-Yai-brand Hat Yai chicken.
And then there are the curries—none are failures, but none have the depth I want in small portions at $14 plus a buck or two for meat.
The same is true of the lineup of classic Thai dishes like pad Thai and pad see ew. I'm no snob; I love a good pad kee mao. But at Farmhouse you tend to get slightly overcooked noodles with a few basil leaves and some shredded carrots. It's college-town Thai, and it doesn't fly in Portland. Not in this universe, anyway.
GO: Farmhouse Kitchen, 3354 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-432-8115, farmhousepdx.com. $$-$$$. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 11 am-2:30 pm and 5-9pm. Friday 11 am-2:30 pm and 5-10 pm. Saturday 11 am-10 pm. Sunday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Tuesday.