Every country has its own food culture and Thailand is no exception. Thai food is marked by a delicate intricacy, attention to detail, and vibrant dance of flavor and color. These unique components make Thai food one of the fastest growing and most popular offerings in America today, a fact not lost on James Beard Award winning restauranteur Andy Ricker when he opened his traditional style noodle house, Sen Yai.
Andy Ricker made his fame with the rapid rise of his Pok Pok empire, a culinary juggernaut comprised of seven establishments on two coasts. His achievements culminated in being awarded the prestigious James Beard Award for best Pacific Northwest chef in 2011. Having secured one of the ultimate epicurean feathers for his culinary hat, Ricker decided he wanted to try something new; something a little more understated.
When Ricker opened Sen Yai in 2013, he wanted to make sure it exquisitely matched the theme of a
traditional Thai noodle house. The building welcomes you with a bright teal exterior and a lively interior that lets the food do most of the talking. The experience is as authentic as you can get it on this side of the left coast.
“One of my favorite things to do when I’m in town is to go find new noodle shops,” he says. “Nine times out of ten, the best noodle shops are ones that are in a non-descript shop house somewhere.”
With that in mind, Ricker set out to find a location that matched the concept. The building was originally used for a more utilitarian purpose, even as Ricker’s idea gestated in his mind.
“I had acquired the lease on the building almost two years before Sen Yai opened,” Ricker explains. “We were using it as a commissary for the other restaurants initially, but it’s a retail location on a retail street, so it was getting harder to justify using it just as a commissary. At the same time I’ve always had an interest in noodles, so it just made sense to open a noodle shop.”
Making sure the building complimented the experience went beyond just the food. As you make your way through a cascade of flavors and textures, Ricker wants you to feel as close to Thailand as you can without leaving Portland.
“Not only do we attempt to make the dishes as close as we possibly can to the way they’re made in Thailand,” Ricker says, “but we also serve them in the exact same way. We use the same bowls with the same condiments on the table. The implements are also the same. We want you to experience the food the way you’d experience it in Thailand.”
The friendly establishment enhances an experience given life by authentically delicious fair. Sen Yai specializes in Kuaytiaw (pronounced quay-tee-ah), which is the Thai word used to describe their ubiquitous staple noodle dishes. Kuaytiaw is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Thailand and places emphasis on taste, texture and variety.
The Sen Yai menu features detailed descriptions that also provide interesting lessons in Thai culture. According to the menu, the Kuaytiaw Reua was originally sold from boats along the canals (khlongs) of Thailand with your choice of noodles, hence their nickname ‘Boat Noodles.’
If that doesn’t provide a good dose of cultural mental imagery, the dish itself is described as a complex dark rich broth with spices, herbs, stewed beef, poached beef, house-made meatballs, water spinach, dry chilies, herbs and bean sprouts with your choice of thin or wide rice noodles. This isn’t Thai food that whispers.
Having had his business mettle tested in the demanding fires of his Pok Pok expansion, Ricker knew this wasn’t going to be an easy sell, for a number of reasons. “I don’t bank on restaurants being overnight hits, ever,” he says matter-of-factly. “None of my restaurants have been overnight hits. They’ve all taken time to build up their clientele and find their rhythm. Sen Yai has been no exception.”
Although noodles for breakfast are common in Southeast Asia, the American palate still has a ways to go before it replaces old-fashioned pancakes and eggs with
more exotic fare. “I was really determined to do breakfast, and we did. We held on for about a year doing breakfast,” Ricker says. “It was a really tough sell. Apparently people just aren’t interested in having rice porridge for breakfast,” he finishes with a chuckle.
Like any respectable Portland chef, Ricker does his absolute best to ensure he is using only the best ingredients. For those seeking the healthy delectability of Pok Pok in a more casual space, Sen Yai delivers.
“We use the same meat sources that we use for Pok Pok, which is to say we use natural, hormone-free products,” Ricker says. “We use local whenever it’s possible and in season. We take good care not to use crappy processed foods in our preparation.”
Ricker does feel there is a slight disconnect, however, in how the average Portland restaurant goer views Asian food in general. While he would like to claim that every aspect of the food is organic and locally sourced, that’s a tall order with this type of cuisine.
“Ingredients to make Asian noodle soups, generally speaking, are not something you can find locally and organically,” Ricker explains. “Do you want Tamarind paste? It’s coming from Thailand. It’s almost certainly not organic, though I have no reason to believe it’s processed or has any additives in it.”
Even so, expect a wide variety of mostly organic and local ingredients combined in innovative new ways. This is a shop noodle house that won’t leave you questioning quality, despite its understated theme.
In addition to overseeing Sen Yai hitting its stride, Ricker is also opening a new Pok Pok in Los Angeles and continues building out his other businesses, diverse offerings that range from the bleeding edge Som drinking vinegars to Thaan, his specialty charcoal company.
And although he may be juggling one project after another, Portland shouldn’t worry about Ricker’s time here spreading thin. He assures that he’s here to stay. “I have an apartment in Portland, New York, LA and Thailand,” he says, “but if people ask me, I tell them I’m from Portland. Portland is a welcoming place to land.”
And Ricker landing here was certainly a coup for the Pacific Northwest food culture. For a taste of Thai that’s close to home, this is one to check off your list. Sen Yai is located at 3384 SE Division Street in Portland, Oregon. They’re open for lunch and dinner from 11:30am – 9:00pm Sunday through Thursday and until 10:00pm on Friday and Saturday. For more information, visit their website at www.pokpoksenyai.com or give them a call at (503)236-3573.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, journalist, and copywriter who has been writing professionally for over nine years. He currently works from his home in Vancouver, Washington and is excited to bring you the best that the Portland restaurant scene has to offer.