It has become a habit of mine to stroll by Pok Pok just to see how many sweaty people are outside in primary-colored shorts or backless dresses, waiting for Andy Ricker’s exuberant, unpretentious Thai food, recently imported by way of Portland, Oregon. I hoped to find a pattern, to share tips with you to avoid the waits, but there’s always a wait at Pok Pok. Twenty minutes if you’re lucky, two hours if not.
Don’t let this discourage you from trekking out to the truck-battered strip between Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, generously referred to these days as the Columbia Street Waterfront District, where shipping containers pile up by the shore, and a dreadlocked man who naps under a rainbow blanket has been feeding stray cats for the past five years. A wait at Pok Pok can pass quite sweetly if you let it.
In the tented dining area round back, under the funny hanging plants and colored lights, it’s always cocktail hour. Make it your mission to taste at least two of the unfussy drinks, lightly dosed with Pok Pok’s own Japanese-style vinegars. Nibble on those wonderfully greasy shrimp chips ($2) that dissolve on your tongue like eco-friendly packing peanuts, and tune in to the same jazzy Thai pop that blares from Bangkok’s cabs at 3 in the morning. Inhale the scent of rotisserie drippings hitting the hot coals, and you’ll salivate like a backpacker, arriving at last to the dog-eared night market in his Lonely Planet guidebook.
Before you know it, you’ll level up to a table of your own, sip pandanus-flavored water from steel tumblers, and order food from serene waiters in matching T-shirts. The yam makheua yao is a neatly built flavor bomb of grilled eggplant ($10), topped with shallots, crispy garlic, and hard-boiled egg. Forget about Ricker’s more trendy, candy-encased chicken wings ($12.50); this spicy, smoky eggplant salad in a lime-and-fish-sauce dressing is the best way to start your night. On the tightest of budgets, you could even make a light meal of it with a side of sticky rice ($1.50), but why not throw in the kaeng hung leh ($14), a wildly complex curry of soft pork belly and shoulder meat under a thick layer of deeply flavored fat. Or wispy slices of muu kham waan ($16), charcoal-grilled Mangalitsa pork neck with a sharp chile dressing. The heat of it will swell your lips, but the meat arrives, conveniently, with a plate of raw mustard greens under crushed ice.
The original Pok Pok opened in Portland in 2005, and I have enjoyed many short waits and long meals there. Ricker doesn’t work any gimmicks or take any shortcuts. The chef is American and spent time in Thailand as a young cook in the ’90s, where he learned about everyday Thai cookery from the locals. He has returned every year since to learn more. The food Ricker began making well in Portland, he now makes for us with even more finesse.
The herb-happy laaps—salads of minced fish or meat—are each dressed differently, beautifully balanced, and come with a plate of esoteric fresh herbs and tiny raw eggplants, the petals like a crisp, unripe pear. The yam samun phrai ($12) might not entice you, but it’s a satisfying antidote to these humid days: raw carrots and parsnips thrown together with betel leaves, basil, lime leaves, sawtooth, and a rich coconut-milk dressing.
Sai ua samun phrai ($14), a snappy, aromatic pork sausage from Chiang Mai, comes with crunchy pork rinds; cold, knotted beans; and a green chile sauce that packs as much flavor as it does heat. In Bangkok, you might pick this number up from a stall under the train station on your way home, and at Pok Pok, it’s spread out without a fuss, on a dinky plastic plate, the color of milky coffee. But taste the rustic-looking food at Pok Pok, and it’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into building these flavors and textures.
Ricker gives traditional dishes attention and respect but doesn’t fetishize them or price them unreasonably. That’s why there are crowds. Go! You’re likely to enjoy most every dish, unless you bring along a killjoy who insists on measuring food’s authenticity by his own pseudoscientific criterion. In which case, my condolences. Nothing ruins dinner like asking to see its papers.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 13, 2012