Big Things Come in Small Packages: Pop Pop Thai Street Food

It’s a reality that in the U.S., it’s hard to find street food. You know, when you can buy locally prepared food from street vendors or carts that specialize in a single item (or two). The closest we’ve come to it are the hot dog or ice cream carts, but they’re few and far between, certainly not part of a crowded phalanx of other carts that feed hungry eaters, a scene very common in most of Asia. The food truck phenomenon today closely approximates the mobility and portability we associate with street carts, though not their singular menu focus or cheap prices. Much of what we now know as Thai food got its start in the ‘streets,’ but now the dishes have been aggregated into a single menu and offered in restaurants instead.

The very name of Pop Pop Thai Street Food, located in the Haller Lake area of north Seattle, reminds us of this popular form of eating, though it too is a sit-down restaurant. It’s part of a sprawling, non-descript shopping center, a far cry from a setting where masses of people look to buy a quick meal from street hawkers. The restaurant is hard to find as it doesn’t face Aurora Avenue, but rather LA Fitness at the northern end of the lot. The storefront is small, barely 15ft wide. Inside, there are just a few tables, no more than eight or so. At a mere 12 items, the menu is briefer than what you’d find at most Thai restaurants.

But, big things can come in small packages. The food here is very well prepared. Friends took my wife and me here for a late lunch.

Papaya salad (☆☆☆) is bright, crunchy, slightly sweet and savory. Sliced (raw) green beans, julienned carrots, halved grape tomatoes and chopped peanuts blended nicely with shreds of green papaya. The vinaigrette was a wonderful combination of tamarind, lime juice, sugar, garlic, chiles and fish sauce. The interesting ingredient were tiny dried shrimp, which you can substitute with fresh cooked shrimp or salted crab. I liked them, my wife not so much.

Papaya salad
Papaya salad

Hainanese chicken rice is quite popular in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, where it is the national dish. Pot Pot serves the Thai version called kao mun gai. What I’ve tasted before have been rather bland, which made me wonder why this dish is so popular. I’ve concluded that those kitchens likely have been taking shortcuts on the rice that is lacking in rich chicken flavor. Not having been in the mother lode of Singapore and Malaysia, I have nothing to compare local interpretations against. I do know that Pot Pot’s is better than any other chicken rice I’ve had up to now (☆☆☆). A dark brown sauce, composed of fermented soybean sauce, chiles, galangal, and spices, made a huge improvement to the braised chicken pieces, conveniently deboned, sliced and with flabby skin (characteristically) left intact. The addition of a sauce is a Thai variation; most Hainanese chicken is simply brushed with sesame oil. A gingery chicken broth was also served on the side in a cup.

Kao mun gai
Kao mun gai

Of all the Asian fried rices, I like the Thai versions the best. Sure, I have a soft spot for Hawaiian rice and I even make my own (see ‘Recipes’), but whenever I dine out at Thai restaurants, more often than not I’ll order fried rice. To be sure, they’re more savory from the use of fish sauce, but they can also be vibrant, spicy, a touch sweet, salty, mixed with any number of chopped vegetables (and maybe pineapple), with a choice of protein (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu). My favorite is Noodle Boat’s Kow Ob! Gai Tod (which truthfully is not fried at all, but baked, though for all intents and purposes, it’s practically the same). Pot Pot Fried Rice is a very good example (☆☆☆), a nice blend of Chinese broccoli, tomato, egg, onion and cilantro—and a savory sauce.

Pop Pop fried rice
Pop Pop fried rice

Crispier wings are hard to imagine than Pot Pot’s Chicken Wings (☆☆☆½). They have no batter, all the more to accentuate the burnished skin that crackles with every bite. Simply seasoned, they’re delicious by themselves, but the sauce, based on a vinegary chile sauce (similar to sambal oelek), elevates the dish to hit the balance that Thai cooking tries to achieve of being salty, sweet, sour and spicy.

Chicken wings
Chicken wings

Competing for the afternoon’s best dish was Panang Beef Curry (☆☆☆½) whose sauce begged to be paired with rice, thick, coconut-ey, spicy and aromatic. You know that the kitchen is on its game when the beef is done just right and you can’t have enough of that curry sauce.

Penang beef curry
Panang beef curry

Pop Pop belies its staid shopping center environment. If you close your eyes when you’re tasting the food, you can almost imagine that you’re on a street in Thailand. I’d like to close my eyes here more often.

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