Walking into Sen, a new Thai noodle house that specializes in street food recipes and hot pot meals, feels a bit like walking into an art gallery. Visitors are greeted by chic white walls, modern light fixtures and high ceilings with towering windows that go nearly to the top—perfect for gazing out over the Deschutes River that flows outside. The décor is intentional; nothing is thrown together haphazardly, and everything has a purpose.
The same could be said about the food, and the ingredients used to create each dish. I ordered the tom yum boran, a noodle soup with ground pork, lime, cilantro, crushed peanuts and bean sprouts, while my friend and dinner date across the table ordered the pad thai goong, adding prawns (goong means “prawn” in Thai) to the classic stir fry dish.
Sen is owned and operated by Rosie Westlund, her parents Paul and Ampawan Itti, and her cousin, Bua Karoon. The same family, originally from Chaing Mai, Thailand, owns another popular Thai restaurant, Wild Rose, just a few blocks away. Westlund explained that Sen acts as an overflow for Wild Rose, and vice versa.
“When people call or walk in and we can’t seat them, they sometimes ask ‘are there any other Asian restaurants nearby?’ and now we can just direct them to our other restaurant,” Westlund said.
Rather than simply opening a second location for Wild Rose, Sen allowed for a diversity of flavors and a wider range of dishes.
“Wild Rose is exclusively a Northern Thai restaurant. Sen brings together flavors from across the country, but the menus don’t cross over,” Westlund said. “In Thailand, most people eat at food stalls that specialize in just one dish. We’ve taken our favorites from when we go to Thailand and decided to serve them all here, as opposed to sticking to one regional cuisine.”
I was delighted to see that each noodle soup came with five different presentations, made up of four different noodle types to choose from or an option to ditch the noodles for a bowl of rice, instead. Westlund mentioned that this is pretty standard in noodle houses across Thailand. Outside of the noodle soups, every entrée comes with the famous (or infamous, if you don’t prefer spice) question, “how spicy would you like that?” Guests can decide how brave they are, on a scale of one through five. Even further to the delight of the table, the waitress brought out a rack with various small jars filled with spicy combinations of peppers, brines, oils and spices—perfect for adding some additional flavor to any dish.
My tom yum soup came out of the kitchen begging to be photographed; each ingredient was placed piling over the edges of the bowl, showcasing contrasts of both color and texture. The broth was a sweet, sour and spicy medley, taken to another level with bites of fatty and savory ground pork with light, crunchy bean sprouts and cilantro. With the addition of a halved hard boiled egg and an entire fried wonton placed on top, this entree was well worth the price tag of $18.
Speaking of price, a night at Sen doesn’t have to break the bank. Guests have a full bar available and cocktails cost around $15 a drink, but there is always the option to opt for a Thai light beer, which only ran us $4 a bottle.
While Sen has upscale and fine dining qualities, the atmosphere of the restaurant strays closer to the establishments back in Thailand that inspire the menu, the Thai noodle shop. The Sen website says that these shops are “busy, bustling and vibrant institutions,” and in the best way possible, that is what dining at Sen feels like. Friends and family are talking and laughing, the employees are in good spirits and the entire building just feels full of life. Nothing felt stiff and everyone felt comfortable, so much so that the bartender was cracking some jokes with our table.
Getting to this friendly, delicious place did not come without challenges. The owners spent about two years trying to open; about a year and a half was spent on construction, which took considerably longer to complete due to health and safety restrictions related to the pandemic. “Our forte is in the restaurant side of things, and we had to learn a lot about construction while the process was taking place. It was little things like picking door handles, hardware accents and lights that we’ve never done before,” Westlund said. “It was definitely a learning process.”
Sen walks the line between casual and fine dining; it is simultaneously where I’d take out-of-town friends to showcase Bend’s nicer side, and where I’d want to meet up with locals for consistently good food and cheap beer.