While he was growing up in Udon Thani, Sirapob Chaiprathum — who goes by Q — would wake up early with his mother to cook food for the markets. Years later, as Chaiprathum traveled around the United States, he noticed that most Thai restaurants in the United States had very few Isan dishes on menus — at best, he might spot a version of larb, or papaya salad, also known as som tum.
In Portland, there has been some Isan representation in the local culinary scene — perhaps more than the rest of the country — but our offerings are generally limited to a few salads and grilled meat dishes. Pok Pok sold a version of kai yang, and Paadee has 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 wasn’t quite satisfied; he wanted to do more, provide a well-rounded portrait of the food he grew up eating. So, after years of opening Thai restaurants and carts with his family around the country, he opened his passion project: an Isan restaurant named for one of the region’s most popular dishes.
Som Tum Thai Kitchen, located on the Portland State University campus, separates its menu into various 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 single dish — thinly shaved green papaya tossed in fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar, maybe with some dried shrimp. However, in Isan, there are a number of different varieties of som tum available: ones made with salty field crabs, ones tossed in fermented fish dressing, vegetarian papaya salad, papaya salad made with sweet corn. Chaiprathum is partial to the tum lao, made with the Laotian fermented fish sauce known as padaek. “It’s really strong flavor, but it’s really signature from the Som Tom Thai Kitchen,” he says.
The restaurant, similarly, offers a number of different varieties of larb — versions made with pork, duck, beef, and mushrooms — as well as commonly spotted dishes like the glass noodle salad yum woo sen. From there, however, the salad offerings include a number of dishes hard to find in other Portland Thai restaurants: tub waan, medium-rare pork livers tossed with shallots and herbs; soop nor mai, bamboo shoots tossed in a fermented fish dressing with dried peppers and roasted rice; yum moo yaw, a Vietnamese sausage salad with chile-lime dressing. 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 crispy rice salad.
The soup menu at Som Tum is perhaps the most well-stocked with Portland rarities, from tom sap kradook on made with pork cartilage and galangal to gaeng om gai, a soothing, herbal vegetable soup with roasted rice and pumpkin. A particularly fun menu item is the tom saep neua, a Thai soup filled with various cuts of beef, with a tangy, tom-yum-esque base.
For those new to the cuisine, though, Chaiprathum thinks the Pa Khao Noi, named for the temple, is a good starting point: It’s a tour through a number of the restaurant’s dishes, including larb moo, tom sap kradook on, fried pork ribs, and crispy rice salad. It’s one of a handful of sampler 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 onsite dining and takeout, and soon Chaiprathum hopes to start serving drinks at the restaurant’s bar. Som Tum is located at 1924 SW Broadway.
• Som Tum Thai Kitchen [Official]