Andy Ricker’s next Portland incarnation of Thai food (besides his Pok Pok and Whiskey Soda Lounge) is the newly opened Sen Yai., which is just turning 2 weeks old from its official opening as of this posting! The space includes its own private parking lot in the front, there are two dining rooms (one square and with full view of the noodle prep/kitchen station, another which is more of a long rectangle with one side lined with booths and a TV at the end) and also an outdoor dining patio outside wrapping around like an L. All three areas have a feel with what you would expect in Thailand- plastic tablecloth clean cheerful casualness (thank goodness he didn’t go all the way and also have everyone sit on little plastic stools, often with strangely colored cartoon animals on them as you would see in Thailand…) with the focus on the food.
The restaurant aims to be open all day, starting with breakfast and into lunch and evening with noodles. The Thai breakfast is what really caught my eye, so even though I did go to a preview dinner to try Sen Yai out, I went back for breakfast since I don’t know many offerings of these morning treats in Portland.
But let’s start with my first experience. I was surprised at the number of dishes on the menu- many noodle joints I have visited in Thailand usually only offer perhaps a dozen dishes at the most, focusing in on their specialties. The menu here at Sen Yai is twice that large- but is also consistent with Pok Pok in that way of doing a round-up of what would normally be scattered among several street restaurants and food stalls in Thailand.
At each table is a little silver caddy with spoons and chopsticks, and a plastic caddy you can request to season your dish as desired to add sweetness, spiciness, acid, etc. I’ll go more into this section and the condiments tray when I cover breakfast- the dish I ordered at this meal didn’t need my help with seasoning, as you’ll soon see.
Coming with veggie F, we had to pick some vegetarian options. Sen Yai’s Phak Buung Fai Daeng (available vegetarian), translates to “red fire water spinach”. On choy is flame stir fried with garlic, Thai chilies, preserved yellow beans, oyster and fish sauces. “In Thailand, this dish is often thrown from the wok by the cook and caught on a plate by a waiter at riverside restaurants”, the menu description reports. In the version we had here, it was garlicky but not spicy, and I don’t like the veg version as it doesn’t have the pungency undercurrent that you would get from the use of fish sauce and the richness from oyster sauce. Usually, this is a dish I always order if available, as it offers a side of vegetables for the table that everyone shares.
Meanwhile, for my start also from the Aahaan Phrom (Snacks and Sides) was the Luuk Chin Thawt, deep fried Thai style pork balls, beef balls, or fish balls served with Pok Pok spicy sweet and sour dipping sauce. I got the fish ball version but these seemed pretty plain to me. I think I prefer what I can get from the Asian grocery store- the balls there are bigger and more flavorful. Actually, as you’ll see soon in this post, they did have the pork balls in the noodle dish I ordered, and those are more in line with my expectations…
For the main dish for the vegetarian… well there are about 3 noodle dishes that are labeled as being able to be made vegetarian (and of those 3, 2 of them vegan). Besides the Phak Buung Fai Daeng above which is a vegetarian side possibility, the three noodle options include the MaMa Phat, which are Mama instant ramen noodles that are stir fried (and rightly described on the menu as “Thai University student grub”) and the other being Suki Haeeng, which are clear glass noodles that are stir fried and prepared like sukiyaki. Both of these are dishes which I could probably make myself as they are pretty simple, and I don’t think it takes anything special in execution of the noodles besides doing a stir fry- the only thing that would differ is your taste for the sauce.
So he picked the Phat Si Ew, which is the fresh local wide rice noodles with Carlton Farms pork (without pork for veg of course), Chinese broccoli, egg and black soy sauce sti-fried in a smoking hot work. This dish has the “cooking method studiously lifted from Yok Faa Pochana, a favorite Chiang Mai street side restaurant. Had to eat there about 50 times before trying to cook the dish… but had it figured after the second or third visit. Simple is best!” said the menu.
Indeed, the way the noodle texture and broccoli and egg texturally felt (with a bit of crunch/deep fry to the noodle) was spot on. But at least in this vegetarian version of this dish this time, the sauce was too restrained and it tasted on the bland side, the kitchen needs to ramp up the sauce ratio a bit. Even though I tried to encourage F to use the condiments tray, he stubbornly refused and at the most added a few spoonfuls from the Phak Buung Fai Daeng to this dish, which is a shame. Using those seasonings is completely common in Thailand- it’s the equivalent as after tasting a dish using the salt and pepper shakers to suit your taste- it is seen as no different as when going to a salad bar deciding what particular toppings you want to add to your salad.
My dinner dish hit it out of the park: the Ba Mii Tom Yam Muu Haeng. My eyes zeroed in on this dish pretty quickly when I scanned the menu that visit, because it was something you don’t normally see on a Thai restaurant menu here in the US. Dry wheat noodles with ground pork, pork balls, cracklings (these are the pork/”Muu” components of the dish”), peanuts, bean sprouts, long beans, preserved radish, fried garlic, chili vinegar, fish sauce, and chili powder, with broth on the side (though my server forgot to bring mine).
The dish can also be ordered “naam” soup style, where the broth is already in the bowl with the noodles. I often like the Dry/”Haeng” dishes if I feel too hot for the soup, and particularly for this dish it amps up the flavor by focusing all those seasonings directly onto the noodles rather than in the broth. Needless to say, mix well before eating the Ba Mii Tom Yam Muu Haeng because all that seasoning is at the bottom. Now these are pork balls!
And now let’s continue for the breakfast exploration! It is one of the things I love about being slightly jet lagged the first days of a trip to Thailand is getting a big bag of Pa Thong Ko, these deep fried dough bites that are better than any doughnut and similar to Chinese youtiao but smaller, and I think lighter and less oilier. They usually come like a little X chromosome shape, with two small straight ones crossed together, rather then the longer single youtiao stick. At Sen Yai, they go by the name of Patanko on the menu, and come in half dozen. Here they are small single pieces and not freshly fried/hot (at least the ones I had)- you can compare the ones I have show below (from Siam Sunset in Thai Town of LA, the only other place I know of right now to get these without flying to Thailand) to what I got from Sen Yai on the right.
To be fair, I suppose the menu does describe them as “Patanko, 1/2 dozen for $3, fried Thai-style small savory crullers.”. So I guess I can see he didn’t really say they would be the exact thing from Thailand, these are more the little cast-offs that you are supposed to have as a side to your breakfast soup like being given crackers instead of a hunk of fresh warm bread with your soup- ok, but I had been hoping for more.
I would sometimes eat these with a dip in condensed milk (which is how they are served at Siam Sunset- one of mine is already jumping into the bowl in my old pic), and here Andy offers them with an optional upgrade to the order of Sankhaya, a coconut custard with pandan, another sweet dip which is green from the pandan leaf. Or, you an have them as a crunchy bread side to your other breakfast dish, Jok or Khao Tom- if you’d like, dip them in just like you would use bread in soup.
There are two oatmeal/porridge/grits like dishes that you can choose from in Thailand. Like oatmeal, you can enjoy it alone, or add more to it to your liking. Jok leans more towards the texture of porridge or grits, but is made with a short grain rice in a broth. Here Sen Yai does it with a pork bone broth with bouncy pork or fish, ginger, herbs, preserved radish, and fried rice noodle. This is harder to find here in the US (you can find packages but they just taste gritty in a not good way), so that’s what I opted for in ordering my breakfast. Sen Yai definitely delivers here with the right taste and mouthfeel of the real thing.
The other option is Khao Tom, which leans more towards the chicken soup type of texture, but again with a regular grain rice in pork bone broth with pork balls or fish and then the ginger, herbs, preserved radish, and fried garlic. Khao Tom is also a night time dish to calm your stomach- it really is closer to a soup. Emotionally I think of it like chicken soup, but change it out with a rice instead of with noodle. The ratio of soup and rice and flavors varies as widely as you would expect from such a homey dish.
In Thailand, these are base dishes that you can have on its own, or you might choose to enjoy either of these dishes with an egg cracked into the middle or with a salted egg, or add extra meats or fish (I like to add Chinese sausage myself). Sen Yai offers part of this experience by offering optionally a poached egg for either of these dishes (guess they don’t want to risk the partially cooked egg).
It is very common to add more flavor with seasonings to your dish (just like you would choose to add brown sugar or milk to your oatmeal) but here it would be the offerings of white pepper in the shaker, or the condiments tray with dried red chilis, vinegar with chilis, fish sauce with chilis, or brown sugar. Taste your dish first, and then season very carefully accordingly. I used a spoonful of the chili with fish sauce and the chili with vinegar sauce, if you don’t want as much heat and/or to bite into a pepper for a burst of spiciness, just use the spoon to add the sauce and leave out the chilis.
Don’t miss out on the little chicken or fish pieces of meat that are in there, whether you choose the jok or khao tom! If you, like me, added a bunch of chilis, sometimes it’s nice to calm your tongue for your next surprise by having a dip of the patanko and sankhaya and continuing on.
I also had the Kafae Boraan, Sook brewed “ancient” Thai coffee with condensed milk and sugar. Available hot or iced. It looks thick like an espresso, but it is sweetened up with that condensed milk and sugar, don’t worry! This is also good with the patanko and sankhaya. Maybe I keep mentioning it because I really want Sen Yai to start selling these like hotcakes and making them fresh.
The only other thing I really missed that would have been kickass to see as a Thai breakfast offering here is Moo Bing, or a grilled pork, which I often also would eat with Pa Thong Ko or with sticky rice. I’m not always a breakfast person, but I would make sure to be up in order to get these morning only delicacies. Looks like I can’t get that particular fix here during breakfast time. You want to know how popular this is? Here are a few photos of when I had it in Thailand- we actually got up a little late, but you can still see a line.
Instead, at Sen Yai there are additional options like Salapao, or little steamed buns filled inside with shredded pork as shown below; and he also offers a noodle dish (an all day dish) of Sen Lek Naam Kai, which are thin rice noodles in broth with chicken, and two simple toast dishes (either with egg or custard). No Milo or Ovaltine either (a malt chocolate beverage), but I can easily forgive that as I wonder if there is enough of an audience here who would order it- though I know he knows of it, since there is a faded Milo sign hanging in the restaurant. The salapao here is very savory and thankfully has a lot of stuffing inside to balance the spongy doughy outside, and it was very moist (I’ve had some that get dried out- definitely not the case here).
If most of the menu does not sound vegetarian or vegan- you’re right, except for the Patanko and the toasted pan bread with the sankhaya, you’re sorta out of luck here right now- maybe if enough veggies ask they might think to put a real dish, say tofu soup (which actually would be perfect with the patanko). But if you have a normal diet, you should give Thai breakfast a try.
This is still early in the life of Sen Yai, so I’m hoping they can develop Thai breakfast a bit more so it can become the yearning and craving that Siam Sunset in LA can create for anyone Thai in the area (even though I’m loathe to write about it now and give away this hidden gem). But that’s all the way in LA, so at least here in PDX there is a way to get a taste… And fortunately here at Sen Yai if you are craving a Thai breakfast they are offered at a longer decent time interval, from 8-11 am daily, so you don’t have to be up at dawn/get there before 9am or they are sold out in order to get these classic starts to a morning in Thailand.