This new downtown Thai restaurant delves into Isan cuisine
While growing up in Udon Thani, Sirapob Chaiprathum – who is called Q – would wake up early with his mother to cook for the markets. Years later, as Chaiprathum traveled across the United States, he noticed that most Thai restaurants in the United States had very few Isan dishes on the menus – at best, he could spot a version of larb, or papaya salad, also known as som tum.
In Portland, there has been some representation of Isan in the local food scene – perhaps more than the rest of the country – but our offerings are usually limited to a few salads and grilled meat dishes. Pok Pok sold a version of kai yang, and Paadee always had a handful of larb and som tum options, as well as the fermented pork and sticky rice sausage sai krok Isan. But, even with Portland’s reputation for its regional Thai scene, Chaiprathum was not quite satisfied; he wanted to do more, provide a complete picture of the food he had grown up eating. So, after years of opening Thai restaurants and carts with his family across the country, he opened his passion project: an Isan restaurant named after one of the region’s most popular dishes.
Som Tum Thai Kitchen, located on the Portland State University campus, separates its menu into different categories of dishes often seen in Isan: grilled meats, spicy salads and soups, as well as a full category dedicated to som tum. . Some uninitiated diners may see som tum as a unique dish – finely grated green papaya mixed with fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, perhaps with dried shrimp. However, in Isan there are a number of different varieties of som tum: those made from salted field crabs, those mixed with a fermented fish vinaigrette, vegetarian papaya salad, papaya salad made from sweet corn. Chaiprathum has a soft spot for tum lao, made with the fermented Laotian fish sauce known as padaek. âItâs a really strong flavor, but itâs truly the signature of Som Tomâs Thai cuisine,â he says.
Likewise, the restaurant offers a number of different varieties of larb – pork, duck, beef, and mushroom based versions – as well as dishes commonly spotted like the yum woo sen glass noodle salad. From there, however, the salad offerings include a number of dishes hard to find at other Thai restaurants in Portland: tub waan, medium-rare pork livers mixed with shallots and herbs; soop nor mai, bamboo shoots mixed with a fermented fish vinaigrette with dried peppers and grilled rice; yum moo yaw, a Vietnamese sausage salad with chili-lime vinaigrette. Much of Isan’s culinary influence comes from its neighbors, namely Laos; as such, Som Tum also keeps a version of nam khao on the menu, also known as the crispy rice salad.
Som Tum’s soup menu is perhaps the richest in rarities in Portland, from tom sap kradook made of pork cartilage and galangal to gaeng om gai, a soothing herbal vegetable soup with roasted rice and the pumpkin. A particularly fun menu item is tom saep neua, a Thai soup filled with various cuts of beef, with a tangy, tom-yum-esque base.
For those new to cuisine, however, Chaiprathum thinks the Pa Khao Noi, named after the temple, is a good place to start: it’s a tour through a number of the restaurant’s dishes, including larb moo, tom sap kradook, fried pork ribs, and crispy rice salad. This is one of the few sample plates named for Thai temples – the Pa Khao Yai is a similar combination, with the addition of kor moo yang (grilled pork neck).
The 40-seat restaurant is now open for on-site dining and take-out, and soon Chaiprathum hopes to start serving drinks at the restaurant bar. Som Tum is located at 1924 SW Broadway.
â¢ Som Tum Thai cuisine [Official]