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.

Mo’ Betta No Can Get: Side Street Inn on Da’ Strip (Honolulu, HI)


It wasn’t until Anthony Bourdain in 2009 featured Side Street Inn on “No Reservations” that this local hangout became nationally famous. It’s the answer to the oft-asked question, Where do famous chefs go to eat after work? Some of Honolulu’s top chefs, including Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, had been coming all along just to “hang out” and have good grub. The restaurant bar on Hopaka Street has also become a rock star among local and visiting foodies, appearing on many lists of ‘must eat’ places in Honolulu. The concept is simple: serve tasty comfort foods at reasonable prices and big portions. Woe be to the couple who wants to try more than a thing or two. It’s much better to be part of a larger party.

side street inn

In July of 2010, a second location opened up along Kapahulu, a street at the eastern end of the Ala Wai Canal that is fast becoming a food mecca for locals and tourists alike, especially those who want to stay clear of Waikiki. Kapahulu also hosts Leonard’s, Rainbow Drive-In, Ono Hawaiian Foods, Ono Seafood, Irifune, Uncle Bo’s, and more. The new digs are classier (but not stuffy) than the Hopaka site that has a more down-to-earth ambience. What better place for my wife and me to have a final meal in Hawaii, and with my wife’s sister and her family to boot.

It would be an understatement to say the menu is astonishing. You could stare at the menu and have a frustrating time trying to decide what you want. The menu is that seductive—and mind-boggling. It’s said that the Kapahulu location has more on the menu than the original one. Let me see, shall I have smoked pork, musubi, garlic fries, rib-eye steak, kalbi, cheeseburger, steamed clams, furikake ahi, yakisoba, buffalo wings, chicken katsu, misoyaki chicken, yakisoba, oxtail soup, Hawaiian-style short ribs? The specials menu tempted us tonight with Korean chicken wings, Chinese ribs, blackened ahi, and more. See what I mean?

Even if a litany of delicious-sounding items made our eyes glaze over, in the end our first meal here had to include two of Side Street’s signature dishes: pork chops and fried rice. We could worry about da’ udda stuff some other time. We also augmented our meal with fresh poké and On Da’ Strip’s Chinese Chicken Salad.

The salad was beautiful to behold, a tower of nicely piled greens and shredded chicken, topped with fried wonton strips. But it was underdressed, like eating raw greens (☆☆½). Despite the whole foods appeal, substituting mixed greens for, say, simple shredded Romaine lettuce does not add anything.

chinese salad

On Da’ Strip’s Chinese Chicken Salad

In Hawaii, it’s almost impossible to get bad poké. Ahi is always fresh off the hook. Not surprisingly, Side Street’s was very good (☆☆☆), although Ono Seafood’s (also on Kapahulu) is now my new standard. Market price likely is responsible for having kept the portion size reasonable, about a cup and a half’s worth.

poke

Ample portion sizes are a different matter for the remaining two dishes. Three large chops constitute Da’ Famous Pan Fried Island Pork Chops. The crispy flour and cornstarch batter is thinly applied on succulent, thick and lightly seasoned chops, then pan-fried. Rather than serving them whole, the kitchen separates the bones from the meat, which it slices into half-inch pieces. The bones, which can only be sensibly eaten with your hands, are like ribs and terrific to gnaw and suck on. A plastic tub of ketchup is served on the side. Great chops (☆☆☆½).

pork chops

Da’ Famous Pan Fried Island Pork Chops

Side Street’s standard fried rice is a combination of Portuguese sausage, bacon, char siu, peas, carrots and green onions, flavored with oyster sauce. That combination is enough for good Hawaiian flavors, but the addition of hon dashi is the ingredient that makes the rice an umami bomb. (Yeah, I know hon dashi contains MSG.) We got Da’ Works Fried Rice instead, which adds lop cheung and kim chi to the mix. All—and I mean all—kim chi fried rice I’ve had up to this point have been too soggy, likely from using too much kim chi or not wringing out enough liquid. Side Street managed to escape that shortcoming to provide a nice tangy accent to an exceptional symphony of ingredients (☆☆☆☆), the second great fried rice dish I’ve had on this trip.

fried rice

Da’ Works Fried Rice

Side Street Inn deserves repeat visits. Mo’ bettah no can get.

Side Street Inn on ‘Da Strip
614 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
808.739.3939

Fried Rice at Eggs ’n Things (Honolulu, HI)


During every trip to Honolulu, my wife and I have breakfast at Eggs ’n Things, an excuse to eat their Portuguese sausage with eggs and two scoops of rice. My wife ordered it (this time, she substituted home fried potatoes for the rice, which turned out to be a bad idea), while the Island Style Fried Rice & Eggs caught my eye. When the plate was set before me, all I could think of was Mauna Loa, it was that big and sprawling.

It was more than bulk that was impressive. The fried rice was quite good (☆☆☆½), a kitchen sink of diced Portuguese sausage, ham, kamaboko (fish cake), bok choy, bean sprouts, julienned carrots, mushrooms, celery and green onions. More than that, the rice was savory and avoided the mushiness that I’ve encountered more than once on this trip. To be honest, all I could manage was less than a fourth of it, the rest taken away to be eaten by both of us for another breakfast at the condo. If it weren’t for its sheer size, the rice would be something to order again. But then, we could think of it as future breakfasts.

Lorne and Lunch at Chopstix Noodle Bar (Lorne, AU)


Of all the towns along The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Lorne is possibly the most popular vacation destination. Galleries, boutiques and bars populate the main drag through town. Lorne also appeals to families as the beach park, much of it covered in grass, has picnic areas, playground, trampoline center, swimming pool and skate park. It even has a resident population of cockatiels that vies with seagulls for scraps of human food.

cocktatiel

The beach, while not the best along The Great Ocean Road, is fine enough, with surfers out in good number.

lorne beach

Lorne also has many restaurants. A walk through the town’s center reveals one restaurant or café after another. There is enough variety to satisfy everyone, it seems.

The restaurant that caught our eye was Chopstix Noodle Bar which features dishes from all over Asia, including sushi, potstickers, spring rolls, satays, Singapore noodles, kway teow, and so on. Ordinarily, this eclecticism spells disaster, at least in my estimation. No Pan-Asian restaurant I’ve ever eaten at was successful at making all their dishes taste good. With a reach from Japan to Southeast Asia, Chopstix is mighty ambitious with its menu. Skeptical, my wife and I passed on it and went walking in search of another lunch spot.

But one dish I saw on the menu stuck in my mind: nasi goreng, a good example of which I had yet to taste when dining out, not because there aren’t any out there but Indonesian restaurants in Seattle are rare. We went back to Chopstix. Also on the menu was Philippine Style Chicken Noodle Soup, an interesting enough sounding dish that we gave it a shot, too.

Though a tad sweet, the soup broth had good chicken flavor with a sneaky chile kick that occasionally brought on coughing. There were generous servings of vegetables (bean sprouts, nappa, green onions, julienned carrots, sliced red chile) and plenty of wide rice noodles. A good soup (☆☆½).

Philippine Chicken Noodle Soup

Philippine Chicken Noodle Soup

My wife and I both were surprised at how delicious the nasi goring was, even if it lacked some typical garnishes like cucumber, tomatoes or even fried shrimp chips (krupuk). The Indonesian fried rice had plenty of flavor from ketjap manis and possibly oyster sauce, chicken thigh pieces, tiny shrimp, green onions, baby bok choy, shredded carrots. We easily polished off this dish (☆☆☆½).

Nasi goreng

Nasi goreng

Chopstix Noodle Bar
96 Mountjoy Parade
Lorne 3232, VIC, Australia
03- 5289-1205

Dinner at Kama’aina Grindz


I am always in search of good Hawaiian food in the Northwest. Not surprisingly, what we get here is not in the same league as what you’d find on the islands, but not for the lack of places that serve it. The numbers of Hawaiians living up here ensures some level of demand, not to mention local visitors to Hawaii who may want to relive what they ate there. By one estimate, there are nearly 20,000 Hawaiians in the Seattle area alone, surely not a huge number but still a good size. So, if you’re on the hunt for spam musubi, saimin, Portuguese sausage with eggs, loco moco, poke, lomi salmon and the like, you’d likely find one or more in the local restaurants. Uwajimaya also has a very good stock of Hawaiian goods and food from its deli.

Recently, there has been an uptick in interest among Hawaiian-born chefs to offer menus inspired by island flavors and ingredients. In Hawaii, you could say the trend was started by the likes of Sam Choi and Roy Yamaguchi, who subsequently spread their wings across the nation. Not content to put forward only traditional foods made in the traditional way, they’ve come up with fusion eats that borrow freely from the islands. There is usually an attempt to “update” the food with more vegetables, both fresh and cooked, for Hawaiian plate lunches are notorious for being largely absent of them. These chefs typically have cut their teeth in the restaurant industry, eventually deciding to demonstrate their talents on food they grew up with. Locally, the Marination chain and Ma’ono (though known primarily for its fried chicken) are examples of this trend. Of the celebrity chefs, Sam Choi’s empire runs a food truck (Poke to the Max), while Roy’s had a brief but unsuccessful run here on 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle.

Into this mix has come Oahu-born Dean Shinagawa who previously helmed at the prestigious Tulalip Casino restaurant by way of Piatti Restaurant and Roy’s in Seattle. His Everett venture is called Kama’aina Grindz, which translates loosely to “local (Hawaiian) eats.” There is nothing in the interior in the way of Hawaiian ambience except for a few island-inspired paintings on the brick walls. Shinagawa and his sous chef can be seen working behind a high counter, punctuated only by a welcoming sign, “Friends & family gather here.” The maitre ‘d, who doubles as the bookkeeper, was very welcoming and warm, the embodiment of the aloha spirit.

One look at the menu spoke volumes about what the food was going to be about: familiar island ingredients used in imaginative ways and traditional foods reinterpreted. Our good friends, who brought us, have eaten here a few times and loved it. They spoke highly of the Portuguese sausage bibimbop (called Maui style on the menu), which none of us ordered today.

My wife picked the Asian Style Ahi Tuna Salad Sandwich (☆☆½). The cooked tuna, cucumber and red bell pepper mince, bound together in a mayonnaise-like sauce, was tasty but personally I would’ve preferred raw tuna, as in poké, but then it would hardly qualify as tuna salad as we think of it. The fries were steak-cut and tossed in a sriracha-style sauce, sprinkled with white and black sesame seeds. These too were very tasty but somewhat mealy (☆☆☆).

Ahi tuna salad sandwich

Ahi tuna salad sandwich

My Broiled Unagi and Smoked Chicken Fried Rice was quite good (☆☆☆). Savory and slightly sweet, the rice was attractively presented, as if inverted from a ramekin, mixed with pieces of tasty smoked chicken. It was obvious on first bite that the eel was fresh, superior to the packaged, pre-frozen kinds from foreign lands available at Asian markets. Topping all this was a mound of lightly dressed spinach mingled with carrot and daikon (white radish) shreds, crispy wonton slivers and white and black sesame seeds.

Broiled unagi and smoked chicken fried rice

Broiled unagi and smoked chicken fried rice

One of our friends ordered miso ramen with shiitake mushrooms, but she remarked that the broth was weak and the noodles overcooked, though to be fair Islanders prefer their noodles that way. Our other friend asked for a modification to a menu item. Instead of a “Huli Huli” Chicken Breast Sandwich, he requested and got just the chicken with a side of rice. The entrée arrived with a spinach salad and fried taro chips. The only comment he made was that the chicken needed more flavor.

Miso ramen

Miso ramen

"Huli huli" chicken breast with rice

“Huli huli” chicken breast with rice

Because Kama’aina Grindz is located in the downtown area of Everett, close to Comcast Arena, we’re not likely to drive over here just for a casual meal, but we would most certainly do it when we’re in the area. The menu is too interesting not to.

Kama’aina Grindz
2933 Colby Ave
Everett, WA 98201
425.322.5280

Back to Pestle Rock


I pondered whether to submit yet another review of Pestle Rock, the outstanding Isan Thai restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, but a couple of unusual dishes (unusual for us who live thousands of miles from Thailand) tipped the balance in favor of it. The original post was a lunchtime meal; the other a post about their noodle soups. I’ll just get down to the two dishes, both of which were listed as specials on the blackboards.

The special noodles were Mee Ka Ti (☆☆☆), a very popular lunchtime meal in Thailand. It gets thickened by a combination of coconut milk, green onions and palm sugar. Tamarind added its unique tartness, earthiness and slightly smoky taste. Despite its “one-chile” rating, these savory-sweet noodles were surprisingly spicy, which wasn’t derived from any visible chiles. The noodles tended to clump together, but this is the nature of vermicelli-thin rice noodles bathed in a thick sauce. Bean sprouts and shreds of egg and chicken rounded out the flavors and textures.

Mee Ka Ti

Mee Ka Ti

More a salad than entrée, Mu Kham Wan (☆☆½) featured grilled pork, cut into small pieces and dressed with a vinaigrette of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chiles, mixed with minced cilantro and mint and slivered red onions. Accompanying the salad were crudités of raw carrot and cucumber. Though the pork was flavorful, it was well past tender, the only defect in an otherwise delicious dish.

Muu Kham Wan

Muu Kham Wan

The menu item was one we enjoyed before, Khao Phad Phu (☆☆☆½), (described in the first post), one of the best fried rices anywhere, bar none. It also happens to star Dungeness crabmeat, a favorite among seafood lovers on the West Coast.

Khao Phad Phu

Khao Phad Phu

Pestle Rock
2305 NW Market Street
Seattle, WA 98107
206.466.6671
Lunch menuentrée menu
 

Breakfast at Rainbow Drive-In (Honolulu, HI)


One of the island’s favorite foods is loco moco, a fried ground beef patty served over two scoops of rice, all smothered in brown gravy and topped with two fried eggs. Personally, I find very little to get excited about basically a hamburger without the bun, even with gravy and rice. But, we were standing in front of Rainbow Drive-In which fans say serves a legendary loco moco. Speaking of legends, President Obama was supposed to have frequented Rainbow in his youth. Not one to let food prejudices get in the way of possible enlightenment—once in a while anyway—I ordered a first-time-ever loco moco plate. A single bite was enough to confirm that I was still underwhelmed. Let’s just say it’s a dish that doesn’t appeal to me, regardless of how well it might be made.

Loco moco plate

Loco moco plate

On the other hand, my wife’s fried rice was pretty good, studded with bits of Portuguese sausage and green onions. Some of the rice was nicely crusted from a hot pan—what Japanese call koge—adding to the appeal.

Fried rice with eggs

Fried rice with eggs

We topped off breakfast by walking up a few blocks to Leonard’s to have their heavenly haupia malasadas.

Rainbow Drive-In
3308 Kanaina Ave
Honolulu, HI
808.737.0177 ‎