When you first see the chef responsible for popularizing Northern Thai cuisine in America, you might have a knee-jerk double-take reaction. Andy Ricker is a white guy from Vermont, whose freckles and reddish hair don't immediately scream “America's current authority on Northern Thai food.” But don't be quick to judge this book by his cover; his wildly successful and ever-expanding small empire of Pok Pok restaurants, has made him just that.
It's the coconut milk curries of all colors, spring rolls, and the ubiquitous pad thai, among others, that have defined Thai food in America. And though most Americans think this is the cuisine of Thailand, these dishes are only based on the central and southern areas of the country, and were adapted for American palates by Thai immigrants whose goal was not maintaining authenticity, but simply trying to make a living here in the United States, cooking food that would have an easier acceptance here. In the recent resurgence of Thai cuisine in America, the regional focus has generally shifted north and the scale has tipped in favor of authenticity. Using much less coconut milk, and many more dried spices and grilled meats, the bold flavors of Northern Thai food draw influence from Thailand's northern neighbors Myanmar and Laos.
A trip to Pok Pok, where Andy Ricker focuses on the food of Chaing Mai Province, is one of the best ways to experience this regional Thai food, short of visiting Northern Thailand itself. Pete Wells, NY Times restaurant critic wrote that “altered perceptions come free with the price of dinner at Pok Pok.” If you haven't been introduced to this cuisine before, as I was not, prepare yourself for pretty much a full 180 from the complacent Thai food you know. Your mouth will be assaulted with heavily funky, fishy, salty, sweet, spicy, herbal, and acidic flavor profiles, all in the same dish. If you are already familiar with this food, prepare to be transported back by the authenticity of the dishes, because Ricker has devoted his entire adult life to replicating the Northern Thai food experience down to every minute detail.
As a restless twenty-something, driven by wanderlust, Ricker traveled around Southeast Asia and fell in love with the food and culture of the Chaing Mai region of Northern Thailand. Being an obsession-prone guy, he became fixated on learning the cuisine inside and out, convincing locals to teach him how to cook their food. When he ended up back in the U.S. in 2005 he decided to open up a small shanty-like take-out spot in Portland, Oregon, where the menu was simply rotisserie chicken and green papaya salads. He called it Pok Pok, the written representation for the sound a mortar and pestle makes, which is how those deliciously addictive papaya salads are made.
As it burst into popularity, Ricker expanded his small restaurant to include many more of the Thai street food dishes he learned in Chaing Mai. Following the momentum, he now has five restaurants in Portland, three in NYC, and one in LA. He practically rules a whole block in Brooklyn by the waterfront in North Red Hook, where Pok Pok NY is located, across the street from his Whiskey Soda Lounge and a few storefronts down from Pok Pok Phat Thai.
Their pandan leaf flavored water compliments the food wonderfully, but don't miss out on the spectacular cocktails at Pok Pok NY. This strays away from the Thai tradition but they really are delicious. There are a couple of draft Thai and American beers as well as Ricker's refreshing Som drinking vinegars and a beer slushy for more traditional choices.
The menu is exhaustive and wordy with lots of unfamiliar ingredients, but the servers are quite helpful in navigating you through it. The tried and true favorites are at the top; the dishes that started Pok Pok. If the rest of the menu is too overwhelming, you can make a great meal out of these: lemongrass roasted young chicken with sweet and sour dipping sauces, green papaya salad, and the fish sauce wings that have gained a cult following.
But venture out into the rest of the menu and you'll find grilled and spice-rubbed boar collar, an incredibly delicious and exotically spiced Chaing Mai sausage served with Naam Phrik Nam (an addictive spicy green chili dip), smokey and sweet grilled eggplant salad with boiled egg and fresh and dried shrimp, a crispy crepe studded with mussels, and flank steak envigorated by lime, herbs, and chili.
I recommend ordering a few side orders of sticky rice. Unfortunately it doesn't come complementary with anything on the menu, but you are going to want it alongside almost everything. It's especially good with the papaya salad and the various other meat salads like the Laap Muu Khua Phrae, spicy and aromatic chopped pork. It's even more fun to eat the rice in the traditional way, by taking a chunk with your fingers, compressing it and using it as a utensil to scoop the salad off the plate and into your mouth, bringing the delectable sauces with it.
Vegetarians will find themselves somewhat at a loss at Pok Pok, unfortunately. There is an abundance of meat, especially pork, on the menu. And even the vegetable-based dishes contain notable amounts of fish sauce or dried shrimp. There is an herbaceous and spicy vegetarian mushroom salad. And four other dishes can be altered to be vegetarian, like the mild curry noodle soup and the papaya salad. But this only accounts for five options of the twenty-two menu items.
But vegetarians and meat-eaters alike can enjoy Ricker's playful and delicious desserts. A cube of durian fruit custard sits atop sweet sticky rice in a bath of coconut milk. An unsweetened chinese doughnut is meant to be dipped in its accompanying affogato made with condensed milk ice cream. And try the hilarious, and surprisingly real, Thai street snack: an ice cream sandwich that consists of a hot dog bun filled with coconut ice cream topped with chocolate sauce and chopped peanuts.
Andy Ricker has won the hearts of multitudes of diners: American, Thai, and critic alike. He didn't take what he learned in Thailand and manipulate it into his own style. His obsessive respect for mastering and serving this food tradition without any false pretenses or alterations is impressive. He won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest in 2011 for the Portland Pok Pok location and Pok Pok NY was just given one Michelin star in the 2015 Michelin Guide. Ricker is a semifinalist again this year for another James Beard award, this time for the all-states-inclusive Outstanding Chef category.
But I implore you, do not go to Pok Pok with any preconceptions. I feel strongly that granting it a Michelin star gives diners certain expectations when they go to eat for the first time, expectations consisting of a certain swanky, white tablecloth class and special occasion restaurant. Yes, the food is eye-opening, delightfully light and flavorful. But don't be mistaken: it's street food and home cooking. It's atmosphere is casual and family friendly, with checkered tablecloths and colorful plastic plates, evoking a neighborhood Thai eatery. And I think that's what is so charming and relatable about it. So please, go any day of the week (they recently started taking reservations), in your most casual and comfortable clothes, with an open mind and an appetite for bold surprises.
Pok Pok NY
117 Columbia St.
Mon – Fri: 5:30-10pm
Sat – Sun: noon-10pm
Menu Items: $11-24