Usually, when a new restaurant with a play area opens up in Portland, families are all over it like, well, white on rice.
Cully Central, a Laotian street-food joint and bar located in a fully transformed strip club in its namesake (and, yes, gentrifying quickly) neighborhood, is an exception to the rule. The space has flown slightly under the radar since it opened early last summer; when we walked in at about 6 pm on a recent Friday night, there were still empty tables to be had, though several families had already settled in for their meal.
You can’t miss the supremely Instagrammable chalkboard wall anchoring the spacious play area, which contains a toy kitchen, train tracks and a toy bin with blocks and books. Look around a little more and you’ll spy high chairs, board games for kids big and little, and a roomy outdoor patio with giant Jenga, firepits and a Frisbee golf cage.
My kids were endlessly amused by the hilariously throwback music videos that were playing on a TV above the bar — think Vanilla Ice doing whatever that was in an abandoned warehouse. (According to published reports, the owners of Cully Central have also paid for a full season’s worth of televised Blazers games, even the non-home games, making it an especially good hang for Rip City fans.)
You’re sold, right? It gets better: The food is genuinely good, particularly if you’re already an enthusiast of southeast Asian cuisine. Fans of Pok Pok and its legions of imitators will recognize and enjoy Cully Central’s puckery take on papaya salad for $7 (Pro tip: I like spicy food, and the mild level was about all I could take; progress further at your peril) and the perfect portions of steamed sticky rice that come with just about every meal. You order at the bar from a laminated menu that’s got pictures of each dish for the uninitiated, and take a number; the food came pretty quickly, within 15 minutes or so. I hope they print up another menu or two, as we hogged the single copy for quite a while, which could get annoying if there’s a long line.
My daughter had the vegetarian version of the restaurant’s signature Nam Khao ($10), lettuce-wrapped crispy rice that comes studded with fresh herbs, veggies, flecks of coconut and a hot pepper or two — one of which she unfortunately bit into, with predictably miserable results. It was OK, a few bits of sticky rice soon helped cool things down.
My carnivorous son ordered what I thought was the best plate of the night — tender chunks of grilled brisket with a smoky tomato dipping sauce, sided by sliced cucumbers ($10). He traded me for pieces of my sesame-seed flecked Laotian beef jerky ($10). I regret not ordering an extra to-go portion — it would make a great protein-heavy after-school snack. For kids who are less adventurous, there is a gently priced, somewhat incongruous bar menu of staples, including corn dogs, fries and tater tots, all for about $5.
Local beer dominates the alcohol list, with Hood River-based Pfriem, Astoria’s Buoy Beer and Bend-based Crux on tap at the time of our visit, along with local favorites like Ecliptic and Breakside.
We couldn’t resist dessert, and tried both of the menu’s sweet offerings — the deep fried bananas in eggroll wrappers, drizzled with chocolate syrup and dusted with powdered sugar and the sweet coconut rice with chunks of fresh mango, $3 and $5 respectively. The bananas weren’t a hit with our crew, but we polished off all the slightly syrupy dessert rice. Afterwards, we lingered for awhile to finish our game of Apples to Apples; Cully Central is the kind of unhurried place that invites that kind of time-taking. But any restaurant with food like that plus a play area isn’t going to stay undiscovered by the hordes for much longer.
4579 NE Cully Blvd., facebook.com/cullycentral.
Monday-Friday, 4 pm-10 pm; Saturday, 11 am-10 pm; Sunday, 10 am-9 pm.
Julia Silverman is the editor of PDX Parent. When she runs out of fish sauce, she has to restock immediately, in order to feel that all is right with the world.