Buckman’s New Thai Restaurant RukDiew Cafe Pays Tribute to Mom’s Cooking

Since the fall of Pok Pok, many have been hoping to discover an adequate replacement for the chain’s wings. Look no further.

Sometimes, the best way for a restaurant to make a good impression on a hot summer day is by hitting you with a cool blast of AC.

In the midst of last week’s heat wave, walking into RukDiew Cafe for dinner from a scorching-hot Southeast Belmont Street felt like floating into a pastel pink and green oasis. This new spot from the team behind Portland staple Thai Peacock and more recent spinoff Khao Moo Dang is a hit on social media and already packed nightly, so it’s not just the powerful central air that’s attracting the crowds.

Owner Poomipat “Pat” Thaithongsuk’s inspiration for his latest project is his mother Temsuk’s love and kindness, which is reflected in the business’s name: RukDiew means “one love” in Thai, and the menu is filled with food she cooked for him as a child. That affection (Pat’s “secret ingredient”) has helped him create a queer-friendly safe space for everyone: Not only are customers having a great time, but the staff also seem to be enjoying themselves while hustling with a dancelike groove along the central bar while Harry Styles plays. RukDiew’s design, influenced by dreams and fairy tales, is both peaceful and playful, with framed illustrations on the walls, light fixtures that resemble clouds and eclectically patterned plates.

What a delight it is when those first dishes arrive and you realize you haven’t been duped into trying hyped-up Instagram food—everything matches the stellar quality of items coming out of the kitchens in Thaithongsuk’s other two establishments.

The most sought-after Thai appetizer in Portland these days might just be chicken wings, since the fall of the Pok Pok chain has many hoping to discover an adequate replacement. Look no further: RukDiew’s hot wings ($9) are not only heavenly, the dish is secretly two great snacks in one. Flats and drums are tossed in a light chile-garlic sauce and served on a bed of fried basil leaves and egg noodles. Once the wings are gone, you’re left with an “OMG”-good pile of sticky, herbal strands to crunch on.

The crab rangoon with pineapple sauce ($8) is generously stuffed, and the unexpected yellow curry flavor evokes chilly autumn nights when you’d crave a warm-you-from-the-inside dish. Cold apps help cut through some of that richness. Fresh rolls with tofu and peanut sauce ($7.50) are well-constructed, but could benefit from the addition of herbs to make them really pop. Somtum ($11), a slightly overdressed salad of shredded green papaya and peanuts, is fun to scoop up with shrimp crackers ($6).

Entrees are strong across the board, most notably the khao soi ($15 with tofu), essentially a perfect dish: two types of noodles, a wider fresh egg noodle and thinner fried one, hang out in a Northern-style curry sauce after a quick bath in the fryer. Its smoky spice is subtle at first, then grows, but is balanced out by a cooling medley of green onions, shallots, cilantro and lime. Panang curry ($16 with shrimp) with basil, makrut lime leaves, and chopped peanuts is deep and complex. While kana moo grob ($15), cubed pork belly stir fried with tender slices of Chinese broccoli in a spicy soy and oyster sauce, is a great use of sister restaurant Khao Moo Dang’s star ingredient.

Takeout staples also feel elevated here: Pineapple fried rice ($13 with tofu) is tender and features layers of saltiness and sweetness thanks to a mixture of yellow curry powder, cashews and raisins. I couldn’t stop going back for one more bite…about a dozen times. The pad kee mow ($13 with tofu), which can sometimes be a one-note vehicle for spice, is my favorite version of the dish I’ve had in Portland. RukDiew’s take has the sweet black soy taste of pad see ew, a strong basil flavor, subtle chile spice, and melt-in-your-mouth wide rice noodles. Anyoce who wishes to add more spice can request the hot sauce tray, which includes chile powder and pickled peppers so hot they made one of my dining companions cry.

If you do find yourself shedding tears during your meal, whether prompted by spice or pure joy, the Thai iced tea ($3) provides comfort and relief. It’s less heavy than other versions, with a playful candy corn-meets-cereal milk flavor. The mango mojito ($11) is also ideal for sipping throughout your meal since it’s loaded with refreshing lime and mint. Other drinks may need a bit of work: the lychee martini ($10) was overly floral and not quite cold enough, and the plum sangria ($10) tasted like cabernet on ice.

The signature dessert, sticky rice with mango ($7), was served a little too warm—almost hot—but had a romantic presentation. The rice was mixed with butterfly pea powder, making it a vibrant shade of blue, then topped with a coconut milk sauce and served alongside ripe sliced fruit. The lava cake ($6) is pretty standard, and pretty delicious: hot, gooey and fudgy, but it could have benefited from a scoop of ice cream on the side.

Such things are the most minor of quibbles, however. I’d stack this exceptional restaurant alongside the titans of Portland’s Thai food scene. I, personally, cannot wait to make RukDiew Cafe my regular spot.

EAT: RukDiew Cafe, 2534 SE Belmont St., 503-841-6123, rukdiew.com. 11:30 am-3 pm and 4:30–9 pm Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-3 pm and 4:30-9:30 pm Friday, noon-9:30 pm Saturday, noon-9 pm Sunday.