Andy Ricker, king of the fish-sauce chicken wing, on Pok Pok Wing, his pocket of Portlandia on the Lower East Side
10:56 am Jan. 25, 20122
The New York hospitality business has been undergoing a Pacific Northwest invasion. Starbucks doesn't count—though you’re as likely reading this there as anywhere else. Think instead of the more recent and less obvious invasion of upscale-boutique outfits such as the Ace Hotel (founded by former dance-party promoters in Seattle), Stumptown Coffee, Caffe Vita, Rudy’s Barber Shop, and now a place called Pok Pok.
“Do you know about The Meadow?” asked Andy Ricker, the chef-owner of Portland, Oregon’s Pok Pok, who took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest last May and recently opened an outpost in New York City. “The Meadow is a store that’s on Hudson, and it’s basically a shop that sells finishing salts and chocolate. They’ve got a store in Portland, and the guy who owns it with his wife wrote a book about finishing salts, and he won a James Beard Award for it and stuff. They opened a shop on Hudson over a year ago I think, so that’s another Portland import. There’s also The Beagle, which is some guys from Clyde Common who opened up a restaurant in I think the West Village, and of course—so yeah, there’s a definite connection between—and vice-versa, New York people come into Portland all the time to do their thing."
Ricker is well versed on his fellow invaders—he also mentioned Tribeca’s Atera, also run by recent PDX transplants. But Pok Pok Wing is the most exciting delivery from Oregon in ages (with all due respect to The Meadow and the rest). The heavily condensed version of his justly legendary Portland menu has been available for less than a month at the tiny storefront restaurant at 137 Rivington Street (between Norfolk and Suffolk streets) formerly occupied by BaoHaus, Eddie Huang’s Taiwanese bun shop.
As the name suggests, Pok Pok Wing is the place to try Ricker’s specialty, the award-winning Ike’s Wings ($12.50): Whole wings, drumsticks attached, are marinated in sugar, garlic, and fish sauce for a decadent glaze; deep-fried; and slathered in carmelized fish sauce and more garlic. (The chopped garlic on top put me in mind of walnuts on a cinnamon roll.) The wings are enormous and meaty—two people can share a full order and have leftovers—and rather than relying on simple sweetness the way you might with a honey-based glaze, the fish sauce adds depth and complexity in which the sugar acts as an ensemble player. Ike’s Wings are available regular and spicy; I had the latter, and even my roommate, who is sensitive to spice, gave the thumbs up.
On the austere menu there are also two papaya salads (including the Papaya Pok Pok, $8.50, for which the eatery is named); highly flavorful bags of red peanuts roasted with chilies, garlic, sea salt, and lime leaf ($5); flavored drinking vinegars (mixed with soda water it’s $4; for full-on vinegar, $16 or $18 depending on flavor); and, naturally, Stumptown coffee (invaders unite!). The “Cold Brew Stubby,” a 10.5-oz. bottle of Stumptown iced coffee, kept me bracingly awake even later than usual.
Ricker spent some time in New York in 2003, but, as with many chefs, the international notice his cooking has earned has brought him here a lot more in the last year and a half, mainly for cooking demos and in-office events and performances for magazines like Saveur and Bon Appetit, and of course for awards shows.
“Basically,” he says, “people have been saying, ‘When are you coming? When are you coming?’ So I figured there was some interest. It wasn’t just other restaurateurs. It was media types and food-world people giving me encouragement. I think there’s been a certain fascination in New York with Portland over the years. It's not a new thing. I’ve been working restaurants in Portland 20 years, and I remember W magazine [and] Esquire doing stories on Portland in the mid-’90s.”
It’s not hard to see why. I’ve visited Portland many times (I lived in Seattle for several years) and with few exceptions ate memorably there, usually at places I’d never been before. The outdoor artisanal cart-markets (echoed locally by the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg) are typical of the city’s why-not? approach to food, and while the “Keep Portland Weird” signs (made famous all over by Portlandia’s opening credits, speaking of Northwest cultural invasions) can make you roll your eyes, it’s a city of people who, it’s clear, love eating well without making too great a fuss about it. The evening I spent at Pok Pok stands tall above the rest—everyone in the room, from the servers to the diners, seemed completely psyched to be there. So was I, not least because of Ike’s Wings.
Ricker is a busy guy. When we spoke, he’d just flown back into town from Portland, where he was overseeing the remodeling on his original restaurant. At the same time he’s attempting to finish a book on Thai food, which will require another visit to Thailand soon. He’s also in the planning stages to open Pok Pok Ny later this year here at 127 Columbia Street in Brooklyn, which will be a full-service restaurant with a bar. (If anything left a bigger impact on me at that first Pok Pok meal than the wings, it was the rum-based drink dubbed, charmingly, “Mango vs. Coconut.”)
“I’m happy to say that we were approved by the liquor committee at the C.B. 6 last week,” says Ricker. “And I’m hopeful that we’ll sail through the final executive thing. We’ll have a full liquor license [at Pok Pok Ny].”
As if all that weren’t enough, Ricker and his crew have also been at work refurbishing Pok Pok Wing from the old BaoHaus look: Expanding the space a bit, pushing the counter further back, and adding some bright (but not obnoxious) wall art of Thai film posters and the like. When I stopped by last Wednesday, plastic freezer flaps greeted me at the door to keep out the winter air, while good Thai pop-rock played over the speakers.
“This summer, I spent a lot of time here starting to search for space, just trying to figure out what we’re going to do,” says Ricker. “The reason why it happened the way it did [is] because I knew Eddie Huang, and when he said he was selling his space, that was basically too good an opportunity for me in too good a location. I snapped it up and put the cart before the horse.” Now he’s refining the restaurant’s look and carefully plotting what the next one will look like.
New York is a cuisine mecca, but Thai has long been one of its problem spots; there are any number of places slinging routine pad Thai, of course, but it’s only in the past few years that a sizable number if higher-quality Thai spots have opened. (It’s a conversation I’ve had with many a fellow Northwest transplant, for whom excellent Thai food was a given.) But even New York’s best Thai outlets tend to be rather conventional. Even with its greatly reduced menu, Pok Pok Wing marks a far different path from the dull Spice chain on the one hand, and a spry up-and-comer like Rhong Tiam (with its excellent Thai tacos), on the other.
“At the risk of sounding kind of arrogant—and I don’t mean [to] at all—I don’t think there’s anybody doing exactly what we do almost anywhere in the States,” says Ricker. “I have the utmost respect for Thai restaurant owners. They are hardworking people. Food is a very important part of Thai culture—I’d say one of the most important things. It’s basically the way that Thai culture has been introduced to the world. However, what you get if you’re a Thai person living in Thailand in specific regions is not necessarily what you get here in America. And what we’re trying to do is that exactly. I’ve been studying the food pretty intensely for the last 20 years, and one of my main motivations for opening Pok Pok was I just couldn’t find the things that I was eating in Chiang Mai and Bangkok here.
“I can absolutely find the stuff that you get in Thai restaurants in Thailand, mostly in tourist areas. But the basic Thai menu that you get here—you can take a menu from Queens and go to a Thai restaurant in Brooklyn, Manhattan, or Minnesota or Austin or Pennsylvania and order off of it, and they would just nod their head and say OK. Some are better than others. What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Look—there’s this whole other world of dishes that you don’t really get to see.’ I think Pok Pok could open in just about any other city. We’re not directly competing with other Thai restaurants. We’re not trying to beat them at their own game. I like that stuff too; it’s just not what we do.”
Nevertheless, Ricker is chary of applying any kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval-style labels onto what he does.
“Every Thai restaurant in America uses the words ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional,’ either in the name of their restaurant or on the menu. We don’t do that all, because it’s such a loaded term. How can you argue with somebody that the kind of pad kee mao [drunken noodles] that you get here is traditional? There is such a thing as pad kee mao in Thailand, but it bears very little resemblance in the true form to what you get here. So you start using the words ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional,’ you’re fucking around with stuff.
“But I would say this: I’m very much a traditionalist in I don’t feel like the Thai food needs to be fucked with. I mean, there’s people who are taking Thai flavors and making new stuff with it, and that’s not what we do either. What we do is very, very specific, very regional dishes. I don’t fuck with them at all. Basically, none of this food that we make is something that I just made up. It’s all stuff that I meticulously research and eat and cook over there before we do it here.”
There are, of course, times when Ricker finds something that isn’t quite ready for the U.S. market, as on his most recent visit to Thailand, last May.
“I found out about a dish that they do in Northern Thailand called yam ho—essentially, cow or ox fetus cooked in a Northern Thai-style soup of larb spice,” he says. “It’s a very deep-country thing I never even knew existed, pretty much. I can speak Thai, but I can’t read it, and it’s the kind of thing that Thai people don’t really like to tell Westerners about because they think they’re going to freak out and think they’re weird people. Even my best friend there, who I’ve known for 15 years, who knows more about Northern Thai food than anybody I know—we were sitting in the same restaurant where it was a week before, and he didn’t tell me it was on the menu. Then I went there with another buddy, an American guy who’s fluent in Thai and reads Thai, and he said, ‘Oh, they have it.’”
“There’s so much more to explore there that hasn’t been explored here," Ricker said. "And I’m still a student myself, you know? Every time I go I learn something new, and sometimes it’s pretty major. There’s one dish that I’m trying to figure out now, that I’ve been working on for about a year and I haven’t quite got it figured out, which is the Southern Thai-style fried chicken. My suspicion is they’re using some combination of MSG and some other various, nefarious goods to make it taste the way it does.”