It wasn’t that long ago that I thought Portland didn’t have any place to get an Asian-style breakfast. Then I found out about Tasting East at the Paramount Hotel, and in response to that post, somebody pointed out Sen Yai Noodles on SE Division. Alright, then! I called my friend Jen of The 100 Best Places to Stuff Your Faces (new edition now available!), and off we went.
Sen Yai, at the corner of SE 34th Ave., is one of 437 restaurants on SE Division. That’s an exaggeration, I admit, but looking out the windows of the #4 Trimet bus on the way, I watched as we passed Genies, the upcoming Pine State Biscuits, Los Gorditos, Detour Café, Ford Food and Drink, Sunshine Tavern, the new St. Honore, Little T American Bakery, and Blue City Biscuits. Right across the street from Sen Yai is Roman Candle Bakery, which has some breakfast items. And had I gone as far as SE 42nd, I would have passed Xico, Toms, and Sckavones.
So, sure, why not an Asian place, and who else to do it but Andy Ricker, who has 289 restaurants in town (slight exaggeration) and now a documentary made about him.
At Sen Yai, which means “big noodle,” he’s created a bright, fun little café specializing in noodles. All the art is of veggies, kitchen utensils, and farming scenes, and the whole vibe is a little playful. He said when he opened it that he wanted it to be like a breakfast nook in the mornings.
They were playing some very bouncy, strangely appealing Asian pop music when I went in, which the waiter said came from a playlist created by the owner. I tried to Soundhound one of the songs, and it completely whiffed. Jen bested me by going to Shazzam and finding it was a crooning love song (I assume) called Arai Gaw Dai (here’s a video, if you’re interested). It’s funny to hear cheesy pop music when you can’t understand what they’re singing, so you pay more attention to the music and production. One of these songs had a Louie-Louie-like “Let’s go” in it and then some Santana-like riffs. The waiter said he gets addicted to it.
The breakfast menu is pretty limited but does include some breakfast classics from over there: jok, rice soup in pork bone broth, and coddled eggs in a glass. Jen got the noodle soup, Kuaytiaw Naam Kai, and had the choice of three kinds of noodles, described as “wide, thin, very thin, whole wheat, and ramen.”
Jen went with wide noodles, because the waiter said they’re made “right down the street.” Here’s her soup, with chicken, bean sprouts, green onions, Chinese celery and fried garlic.
I got the jok, or congee, which is basically rice boiled forever until it turns into a smooth, ricey-tasting porridge. (Wikipedia lists 13 national varieties!)
From there, it’s all about what you put in it; at Sen Yai the initial choice is bouncy pork or seafood, neither of which tells you much. I went with seafood and still couldn’t tell you what it was. Nor do I care.
Waiting on the table were four containers of spices: Thai chile, Serrano, Thai pepper, and sugar. Also a shaker bottle of white pepper and one of Maggi sauce. We both really though he said maggot, but in our defense, we were both game, too. Of course, it’s maggi sauce, which is like soy sauce but with no soy; it’s also a Nestle product and was invented in Switzerland.
My jok was really good, and such a nice break from the usual breakfast. I found it to be similar in texture to cream of wheat, but with a nice rice taste, and with the spices you can take it in whichever direction you want. Just beware the serranos!
Whenever things go too hot for us, we could always take a break with the crullers and Sangkhaya, a rich coconut custard. Neither was too sweet, but compared to my ever-spicier jok, they were perfect. I even finished off Jen’s last one, so I think we’re dating now, or something.
Outside, waiting on the bus, I was looking at Ava Gene’s, which I guess is one of the best new restaurants in town, and thinking that Southeast Portland ain’t what it used to be. And then a kid skateboarded up, sat on the ground next to the bus sign, and lit a joint. I felt much better.
Speaking on weirdness, one last thing I had to get in: I went in the bathroom and saw what I thought was a dude playing a pipe on a poster. Turns out, no, he’s smoking that pipe:
Some kind of trippy-creepy Thai anti-drug poster, I guess. So yes, Sen Yai has a yummy breakfast. And yes, Southeast Portland can still serve up the goofy.
Sen Yai is at 3384 SE Division and on the Web at pokpoksenyai.com. They’re also on Facebook and Twitter. Breakfast is served weekdays 8 to 11 a.m. and weekends 9 to 11. From what I hear, it never has a line.
Read all of my Portland Breakfast Reviews. You can also like Breakfast in Bridgetown on Facebook and follow @PDXBreakfastGuy on Twitter or Paul Gerald on Google+. You can buy the breakfast book, too! I also hike and travel and talk and lead hiking and eating trips to Italy.