New York City's slightly envious, slightly condescending media obsession with Portland, Oregon’s little engine-that-could food scene has led to an amusing colonization of the Big Apple by West Coast companies. First, Stumptown Coffee began dripping its refined brews in New York. This year, Pok Pok invaded and immediately vaulted to the top of the must-eat lists. The real significance was the arrival on the national stage of a chef who takes particular care to explore real Thai and regional dishes in restaurants aimed squarely at the fooderati. (New York has always lagged behind the West Coast in understanding Asian flavors.) For anyone who has eaten in Thailand, as Andy Ricker has every year since the early 1990s, researching regional and street-food styles, Pok Pok marks an important step away from the cookiecutter pad thai joints now found in every U.S. city.
“I am trying to point out that there is more to Thai food than is typically found on Western Thai menus,” Ricker says, “[and] that it is accessible and delicious. I don’t riff at all. Everything is cooked and eaten in its native form.”
Ricker’s food is not cheffed up or dumbed down. Nor is it clever fusion food. While the word “authentic” is always loaded—Ricker isn’t Thai—“respectful” is a good substitute.
“Ricker fearlessly presents Thai food with all its sweet and sour, fire and funk intact,” says Providence Cicero, chairman of the James Beard Foundation Restaurant & Chef Awards Committee, which gave Ricker a Best Chef Northwest award in 2011. “His passion for the country is evident in his cooking.”
Coriander-rubbed boar’s collar (Muu Paa Kham Waan) is charcoal grilled and served with chilled mustard greens, and it gets to a meaty-and-bitter place in an umami-good way. Get a fingerful of sticky rice, roll it all up, and dip it in the accompanying chili-garlic sauce. The Papaya Pok Pok—a crisp green papaya salad with long beans, chili, lime, palm sugar, and dried shrimp—is a vivid course correction from the version found in many Thai restaurants.
Ginger, garlic, lime, curry, and chiles are used freely, but they’re not omnipresent. Ricker describes his food as “specific regional, done through the lens of a cook from Northern Thailand,” where spiciness often gives way to more subtle flavors.
One showstopper is the crispy, broken crepe (Hoi Thawt) tossed with mussels and bean sprouts. A confluence of starch, seafood, egg, and crunchy vegetables, it’s quintessential Thai street food, best washed down with beer, a Tamarind Whiskey Sour, or a glass of Thai iced tea with fresh lime juice.