What I Ordered
- Laksa Nyonya (Singapore Coconut Noodle Curry)
- Thai Tea Ice Cream
In Short: Delicious and warming, the unusual Laksa Nyonya noodle curry soup will bring Singapore's bustling streets to mind. Finishing with sweet, sticky ice cream made in-house, it's impossible to leave without feeling both satisfied and well-traveled.
Stepping through the teal-and-yellow doors of renowned chef Andy Ricker’s Sen Yai Noodle House can easily make it feel as though hip, minimalist Portland is suddenly miles away. In place of clean, reclaimed wood tables and bare Edison bulbs, San Yai is unabashedly authentic, boasting vibrantly colored walls and a crowded menu.
Sen Yai is Pok Pok’s hip younger brother with a noodle-forward menu and peppy Thai pop echoing around its checkered tablecloths. “Sen Yai” is quite literally the star, the restaurant a namesake for wide, fresh Thai rice noodles. Boasting a menu that, upon first glance, seems to be entirely in a foreign language, it is possible to eat your way through Thailand using noodles of all shapes and sizes as your guide. A tiny text box in the center of the crowded list highlights the differences between Sen Lek (thin rice noodles) and Sen Mii (very thin rice noodles) as well as Baa Mii and MaMa, placing the decision in the hands of the diner.
For anyone who has traveled, the experience of eating here at Sen Yai is delightful. As opposed to kitchier restaurants that feel as though they are trying in Disney-eque fashion to recreate an experience, Sen Yai feels genuine and authentic. Their dishes come out tasting unusual and foreign, although they lack the expected satisfaction that MSG provides in American versions of Asian cuisine. Tables are adorned with various add-ins (sugar, to mellow spicy dishes and Thai chilis to add heat when desired) that allow the diner to tailor his experience.
The sen yai noodles are silky and tender, slippery even against the grasp of rough wooden chopsticks. These noodles are not intended to have the biting chewiness of ramen, but do require forgiveness on the part of the inexperienced diner (like myself) when re-adjusting their tastes and expectations. The result is spicy, satisfying, and strange; a texture that would be completely at home back in Singapore, halfway across the world.
Soft-boiled eggs with perfectly molten yellow centers feature prominently in a handful of their soups and noodle bowls. One of their more popular special is Laksa Nyonya, a coconut noodle curry born out of Singapore. Equal parts fish stock and curry provide the broth in which snappy, fresh shrimp and cockles swim, joined by shredded chicken and cool, refreshingly bland shredded cucumber. Portion sizes, for the price, tend to leave most people still a little hungry, although that can be easily remedied by finishing the meal with one of several exotic ice creams. (Think durian, pandan or condensed milk flavors, all made in-house.)
All in all, dining at Sen Yai is an experience that takes the diner on a brief journey to Southeast Asia without leaving Southeast Portland. For those feeling adventurous, it offers a reprieve from Portland’s heavy industrial-chic dining spaces. Sen Yai also delivers if the need for a nice Thai bowl ever strikes. It is also prudent to mention that on Division’s often-crowded streets, Sen Yai has their own roomy parking lot for its diners.
For anyone in the mood to warm up a rainy afternoon, Sen Yai is certainly the place to travel. Leave that passport at home, Portland. Andy Ricker has brought Thailand to you.