Is it possible to overdose on pork? I'm, um, asking for a friend. Yeah, yeah, that's it, a friend—a friend who's been eating an awful lot of carnitas, an awful lot of ribs and, now, thanks to downtown Sarasota's Drunken Poet, an awful lot of kao kha moo. That dish is the star of the restaurant's new $9 street food menu, which launched last week and includes seven other options, most of them built around chicken or pork, plus rice and a small cup of chicken-and-rice soup.
I've been to the Poet a couple times in the past few weeks, once for late-night sushi, a second time as part of a media tasting event, but today I'm meeting my wife, Rachel, for a celebratory kid-free midday meal. It's approximately 765 degrees out, but the Poet's black walls, wood paneling and dim lighting offer seclusion and respite. Pendant lamps dangle above the empty bar and sushi counter. The restaurant is quiet today; maybe half of the tables are occupied. Friends are meeting up at a handful of tables near the front. Closer to the back, one solo diner cruises through a library checkout while munching on his meal. The vibe: sedate.
The $9 street food menu is so new we have to ask for it. The list includes four pork options, three chicken dishes and a papaya salad. I'm not saying you'd be insane to not pick the kao kha moo, but I'm not not saying that, either. (I think I got that right.) The dish is made from a leg of pork, stewed and stewed and stewed with a hodgepodge of spices and flavorings. The meat has broken down almost as far as you can take it, with skinny strands of meat clumped up with small nuggets of fat. The primary flavor I get right away is star anise, but there's cinnamon and ginger in there, too. It's sweet but not sugary, fatty but not gelatinous. A solitary sprig of cilantro lays atop the meat, which coats a scoop of rice below. Two halves of a hard-boiled egg stand guard on either side.
Rachel also selected pork: the kao moo daeng. Thin slices of red-rimmed roasted pork lie fanned out beside a mound of rice drenched in a sweet red sauce. Wedges of well-seasoned sausages sit on the other side. The meat is a little dry, but improves with a dunk in that sauce. Both our lunches are preceded by a miniature cup of soup scented with ginger, soy and sesame, a nicely sized warmup to the main course.
The som tum ($9.95), part of Drunken Poet's regular lunch menu, is served in a mortar that's weighty enough to tear a rotator cuff. The dish includes thin strips of green papaya and other vegetables, soaked in a dressing made from fish sauce, shrimp paste, tamarind, lime and more. It's crunchy, acidic and sweet.
My only complaint is that it's a bit undersized. And it doesn't have pork in it! But that's OK. I guess. Perhaps every dish doesn't need to include pork. I'll just have to break the news to my friend—you know, the one with the pork addiction problem. Who is totally not me. Nope.
Drunken Poet is located at 1572 Main St., Sarasota, and is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday. For more information, call (941) 955-8404 or visit drunkenpoetcafe.com.