I had heard some positive things about E-San Thai Cuisine through F’s office, and when I saw a Groupon special for it, I was encouraged to finally visit on my own. I have had mixed results with Thai food in Portland so far, with many of them being Americanized in that they tend toward the sweet side, and blander then what I prefer since I know what they actually taste like in Thailand. There are a few exceptions I would recommend, like Pok Pok and Nong’s Khao Man Gai food cart and Thai Derm who have more of a chance of hitting a good dish from the list, but often I list out specific dishes. This is fairly common as most of the time the restaurant entrepreneurs are offering what they learned to cook growing up from their family and for their family, so my first step is instead of assuming that home-cooking is equally delicious for 30 items on the menu, I scan for hints of what dishes they excel at.
At E-San, what stood out as I gazed through the menu from the normal expected Thai dishes is “Nam Kao— Crispy rice, peanut, ground meat or tofu, fresh Thai chili, mint leaves, lime juice. Served self-wrapped with green leaf lettuce”. This is pronounced so that Nam that rhymes with Ham, and Kao as in “Cow!” Yes, with the exclamation point at the end. I haven’t had this dish since I left Chicago (done by a friend’s mom/my mom’s friend), and it’s not one you often see in Thai restaurants.
This dish stands out because first, the rice formed into a ball and fried until crispy (so sorta similar to arancini) and then broken up and additional seasonings added. You know how in Mac and Cheese the top part and especially the corners are crispy or the bottom of the rice in Bibimbap thanks to the stone rice bowl? You have that in Nam Kao.
Unlike the creaminess of mac and cheese or the spicy kick of Bibimbap, Nam Kao has a flavor profile that is a mix of sour thanks to a healthy dose of lime and then a bit of spice whiel the cilantro and lemongrass are kicking around too, and then you spoon and wrap the rice inside a lettuce leaf and as you bite in you get bits of nut sometimes in a bite. Not in E-San’s version, but in other versions of what this (also known as Laotian crispy rice salad or fried rice ball salad) there is also pork sausage and coconut as part of the dish.
I was so excited that I actually ate a couple wrapped lettuce leaves before I pulled out my camera to take a picture. This dish is definitely hands on, which I also like because it forces you to compose your dish yourself and take careful bites- all ways to make you savor your dish over time instead of eating too quickly.
The other entree I ordered to use the value of my Groupon was the deep fried salmon (they were out of trout) topped with chili and garlic sauce and topped with crispy basil leaves just got a bit neglected. That’s because after a few bites of the really sauced fish barely visible underneath all the chili and crispy basil, then I tried the Nam Kao and I couldn’t stop eating the Nam Kao. Mmm look at those big crunchy brown bits