When word broke late last year that Andy Ricker, the Portland chef behind the Pok Pok family of restaurants, was planning on bringing his take on Thai food to New York, the reaction of the average Brooklynite was something along the lines of, “Who the F#*% is Andy Ricker and what the hell is Pok Pok?”
As the chatter grew into a deafening buzz, the story began to come clear. Ricker, known and loved in PDX for his obsession with truly authentic Thai food, northern Thai food to be exact, is a sort of Indiana Jones of Thai cuisine. On a trip to Chiang Mai a couple decades ago, his mind was blown by his first taste of a traditional soup called khao soi. That sip sent him down the rabbit hole of northern Thai cooking, leading to trip after trip to the region to uncover all kinds of traditional treasures and to unlock their secrets.
Pok Pok became his vehicle for sharing his obsession with Portland. The food garnered him a James Beard award and the restaurant’s wild popularity led him to expand across the continent to New York. He opened Pok Pok Wing on the Lower East Side a few months ago. He keeps it simple at Wing, with a tiny space and a tiny menu focused on tiny wings.
Pok Pok Ny (that’s actually ny, the Thai word for ‘in the city,’ not N.Y.), on Columbia Street in the Columbia Street Waterfront District (aka, Red Hook), last week. Pok Pok Ny features a much more extensive menu, and with a tented back garden open for dining, a much more extensive space.
Pok Pok Ny has a no-reservations policy, and lines have been out the door since the opening. The coverage of the project has been extensive, so to keep you occupied during your hour-plus wait for a table, we’ve compiled a little Pok Pok Ny study syllabus:
The Origin Story
The New York Times sent writer J.J. Goode all the way to Chiang Mai last fall, to tag along with Ricker on one of his frequent journeys to the source. Goode writes:
“It was there [Chiang Mai] that he first encountered a bowl of curry — devoid of coconut milk, but full of local wild mushrooms — that convinced him there was an entire universe of Thai food unknown to Westerners. And it is where he has returned most often during the past two decades to meticulously research the dishes that end up on his menus.”
A couple of dishes that inspired Ricker?
Yam Samun Phrai (an herb-heavy salad):
“The salad was a particular highlight: a boisterous sweet-tart jumble of more than a dozen ingredients, including thinly sliced betel leaf, fried shallots, cashews and shredded fresh white turmeric. “This dish really kicked it off for me,” Mr. Ricker said. “I thought, ‘If this is northern Thai food, then I love northern Thai food.’ ”
And the Khao Soi (a traditional soup):
“Almost 20 years ago, Mr. Ricker’s initial slurp of this particularly fine version — just barely sweet, with complex flavors of Thai curry paste and a hint of Burmese curry powder — was a watershed moment. Much of northern food confronts newcomers with exciting but occasionally challenging flavors. Not so khao soi. “It’s exotic without being weird and, most important, completely delicious,” Mr. Ricker said.”
Serious Eats dispatched Jacqueline Raposo to interview Ricker in Pok Pok Ny’s garden. Says Ricker:
“The “aha” moment was when I got taken to a restaurant [in Northern Thailand]. There’s a particular mushroom that comes up there in April called het top. They’re not these beautiful floral, meaty, sweet mushrooms: they’re kind of like a puffball. They’re a little chewy, and have a slightly bitter flavor to them. We had them in this really pungent, bitter, salty, highly flavorful kind of soup. And to me—somebody who’d been to Thai restaurants in America and spent time on the beach in south Thailand eating bungalow food—this was a complete revelation, and it was the first time I really went, “oh, fuck, I don’t know why I didn’t think of this but of course there’s regional and seasonal food in Thailand. From there I sort of set off on this journey of discovery. And the deeper I dug the more I realized I knew so little about Thai food that it was scary. To this day I still consider myself a student. I think that I’ve got a lot to learn.”
It’s a natural human law: There’s no better way to get to know someone than eating and drinking with them. Unfortunately, Mr. Ricker is probably waaay to busy tacking and jibing the Pok Pok ship to down a couple pints and talk Thai with you. Thankfully, Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton did just that, and brought a camera crew along.
Blogger-provocateur, and restauranteur Eddie Huang scored an invite to Pok Pok Ny’s friends and family test-drive, and wrote about it.
“But for real, I’ve been to Pok Pok Portland twice, Whiskey Soda once and Pok Pok NY is dead on. As a kid that revered Din Tai Fung Taipei only to see it watered down location after location, consistency is the most difficult thing. For a Chef to train people cross-country to think and cook like him is the hardest part of this job. It’s easy to write a recipe book and teach people how to do things the right way, but its the surprises you walk into week after week that separate the good from the bad. When people send you shitty turmeric but you still have Cha Ca La Vong on your menu, CHEF! Whatchu gonna do? Air ship it from your restaurant in Portland haha. It’s that refusal to water down his product that makes Andy great.”
Gothamist photographer Sam Horine captured the food, the room, the drinks…and the line.
The Early Word
Eater rounds up the early reaction from the Yelpers and Chowhounders – they’re generally glowing, with the predicatable sprinkle of complaints about the wait and the, ‘It’s no Woodside, Queens’ from the hype-haters.
Last, but not least…The descriptions of each dish alone will make your mouth water, even if you’ve never heard of half the ingredients. A small sampling:
Yam Samun Phrai – northern Thai herbal salad with carrot, parsnip, white turmeric, betel leaf, basil, lime leaf, lemongrass, sawtooth, fried shallots, cashews, peanuts, sesame seeds, dry shrimp, ground pork and thai chilies in a mild coconut milk dressing
Kung Op Wun Sen – Carolina white prawns baked in a clay pot over charcoal with pork belly, lao jiin, soy, ginger, cilantro root, black pepper, chinese celery and bean thread noodles. The Chinese influence on Thai food in full evidence
Yam Kop – spicy northern thai pork bone soup with smoked frog legs, aromatics, herbs, shallots and laap spice, country-style chiang mai cookin’, slightly bitter, goes great with grilled meat and laap
Muu Kham Waan – Mangalitsa pork neck rubbed with garlic, coriander root and black pepper, glazed with soy and sugar, grilled over charcoal and served with chilled mustard greens and a spicy chili/lime/garlic sauce. Northern Thai drinking food.
Khao Soi – Northern Thai mild curry noodle soup made with our secret curry paste recipe, Amish natural chicken on the bone and house-pressed fresh coconut milk, served with house pickled mustard greens, shallots, crispy yellow noodles and roasted chili paste. typically served as a one dish meal. Chiang Mai specialty with Chinese Muslim and/or Burmese origins, depending on who you talk to
Pok Pok Ny is located at 127 Columbia Street, between Kane and Degraw, in the Columbia Street Waterfront District.