Saturday, June 5, 2010


21 Forest Avenue

I had a friend in town for the First Friday Art Walk.  Angela wanted to go to one of Portland's many restaurants, and I figured it was high time for a food review (I apologize for my negligence, dear readers).  

I initially wanted to review Boda--the much talked of high end street-vendor-style joint that occupies the space that Bangkok Thai once did--but I knew that I stood no chance of scoring a quick seat on this First Friday.  The Portland Food Map led me to Sabieng, a new Thai place at 21 Forest Avenue, a location that has seen its share of eateries.  The three reviewers that have posted thus far indicate that when they visited, there weren't many other diners in the restaurant--this gave me the hope that I could find a seat on a night when Congress Street was crawling, elbow to elbow and shoulder to shoulder, with many art-hungry and presumably food-hungry hipsters (I count myself as one of this mob).  

Our party of five easily secured a table at Sabieng, but every table in the restaurant was full within 15 minutes of our arrival.  I could see in the faces of the waitstaff that they were unaccustomed to this volume of customers; the waiter had an actual look of panic in his eyes as he scooted, table to table, sweat on his brow, to refill seemingly endless empty water goblets.  The waitress seemed almost surprised to see us.  This began a frenzied but kindly series of service mishaps.

The menu included much of the standard Thai restaurant fare: fresh and fried spring rolls, a selection of curry entrees, an assortment of noodle dishes, and several choices for rice-based meals.  What the menu did not include was a spicing guide: my fellow diners were not aware that they could add spice to their meals until Keith inquired about it.  Furthermore, while the menu did include tofu as an option for several dishes, it did not contain information about which sauces did or did not contain fish or oyster sauce.  I do not mind consuming these kinds of sauces, but fellow vegetarians who are stricter than I should inquire about sauce ingredients before placing an order.

Our table opted for two orders of the Fresh Spring Rolls ($6.)  We ordered two because each order contains two rolls, but they are halved to make four pieces.  For my entree, I ordered the Crispy Pad Thai ($10), with 2/4 spice stars (fortunately, I ordered after Keith and thus was able to embrace my opportunity to add spice to my meal). 

The spring rolls were tasty and refreshing--just as I would expect them to be.  They were wrapped in the standard rice paper roll and filled with a mixture of lettuce, shredded carrots, shredded cucumber, and fresh herbs (either mint or cilantro--I can't recall which).  The dipping sauce was sweet, spicy, and topped with crushed peanuts.  It was tasty.  It would have helped to have a small spoon with this dish, however, as the sauce was so watery that it was sometimes hard properly disperse it throughout the rolls.

Then our appetizers started to arrive.  First came Angela's.  She had ordered Pad Thai (we were an original group that night) with a mixture of vegetables and tofu; though her meal was fraught with broccoli and peas, no tofu was to be seen.  When two more dishes arrived, we informed the waitress of the oversight, and she said, "Oh, he's going to be so mad he forgot the tofu," and brought the plate back to the kitchen.  

Within a few minutes, my meal was before me: I saw thin rice noodles with fried egg noodles tossed in a brown sauce with green onions and fried eggs.  A savory smell wafted up to me.  Unfortunately, Leon's dinner still hadn't arrived.  I waited a couple of minutes for it to arrive before digging in.   

It turned out to be worth the wait.  The crunchy Pad Thai was outstanding: the combination of thin rice noodles with the crunchy egg noodles and chopped green onions brought the dish a dynamic and satisfying texture.  The spicing was virtually perfect: tangy, sweet, and spicy.  I forced a small forkful upon each of my friends so that they, too, could bear witness to the enchanting balance of flavors and textures.  "I should have ordered that," was what more than one person said.

I was eager to order the Fried Bananas ($5.) for dessert, but the waitress informed me that Sabieng had "no bananas today."  I was very disappointed, as I have fond memories of eating fried bananas with sesame seeds in the Sukhumvit section of Bangkok three summers ago, and I was eagerly anticipating that flavor combination once again.  Leon, however, was delighted by one of the other choices: Pumpkin Custard ($6.).  I was more intrigued by the Taro Root Custard ($6.), but agreed to share the former with Leon.  

When the Pumpkin Custard arrived, it was very hot.  We had to wait a couple of minutes before digging in.  It proved to be rich, sweet and creamy, laced with roasted pumpkin strips and topped with a dollop of whipped cream.  It lacked the exotic flavor that I craved in the fried bananas, but it was nonetheless quite good.

The Crispy Pad Thai at Sabieng was extraordinary, and the rest of the food was quite good.  The menu, service, and simple decor of the restaurant, however, need some attention if Sabieng expects to have any longevity among Portland's many Thai restaurants.  The management should also consider creating a website, which most other Portland restaurants--Thai ones included--already have.  As for the service, hopefully it will become more streamlined as patronage increases.

Do yourself a favor, though: order some Crispy Pad Thai.  You won't regret it.