I’ve always been a sucker for double names, and tend to think that they’re an auspicious road sign for avid eaters: DELICIOUSNESS AHEAD. PROCEED WITH APPETITE AND WETNAPS.
Walla walla. Piri-piri. Puu-puu platters. Bang-Bang (as in the new curry restaurant on Fremont). And perhaps the one double name that rules the roost. The place allegedly named after the sound a wood pestle makes in a mortar.
Are you all familiar with Pok Pok and the story of Andy Ricker?
Mr. Ricker (originally hailing from Vermont), an inveterate backpacker, eventually became obsessed with the food and culture of Thailand. Taking a break from cooking stints in various parts of the globe, he would return over and over to explore the various nooks and crannies of Thailand. His insatiable hunger for the flavors and techniques of the informal street and home cooking of the area translated into countless explorations of the dives, street stalls and kitchens he found there — places you and I can only dream of.
Added to this wanderlust was an unwavering attention to detail, a perfectionist need to nail the specifics of his obsession and then finally the chutzpah to introduce a certain style of cooking and serving to Pad Thai-eating naifs, and what do you have? This is the stuff of legend.
And lucky for us, this iconoclast ended up in Portland and decided to open his vision of a Thai restaurant here.
Andy Ricker’s story is riddled with Horatio Alger-esque details. There were the years of back-breaking and mindless house painting gigs that bankrolled extended trips to towns big and small in Thailand. Others talk of the half-demolished house and the porch that served as Andy’s first take-out window in late 2005. Some recall hearing of his nearly ruinous line of credit consisting of maxed-out credit cards and personal loans as he struggled to support the restaurant in its infancy.
Few would take a look at the ridiculous waits today (even ten years later) and believe that Pok Pok nearly failed in its first year. Word-of-mouth spread quickly about some guy who was serving grubbin’ authentic Thai food out of a takeout window on Division Street, but back then the street was largely undeveloped and Pok Pok had neither sufficient space nor the reliably sufficient crowds to ensure a robust steady revenue flow.
According to his cookbook, just when it looked like this mad experiment risked being shuttered, the Oregonian named Pok Pok restaurant of the year.
Pok Pok, once only the darling of the exceptionally well-informed and geographically desirable, suddenly exploded in our collective consciousness and its popularity ballooned.
Pok Pok has since won every culinary and people’s choice award and Mr. Ricker has become revered, studied, emulated. The Pok Pok empire now includes the original restaurant, his Whiskey Soda Lounge (bar and restaurant, also on Division), a smaller version of his original restaurant in Northeast (Pok Pok Noi), a noodle house on a later stretch of Division (Sen Yai) and three places in NYC (Pok Pok, Pok Pok Wing/Pok Pok Phat Thai, and Whiskey Soda Lounge). Just opened is yet another Pok Pok in downtown Los Angeles.
Oh, and I’ve heard that he now sells his wings at our airport and his drinking vinegar business is doing a brisk business nationwide (you can read about it here).
Not too shabby for a guy who had to sell his house and move into a rental to keep his original first restaurant going.
So enough background; I believe we’ve established both that Andy Ricker is a food demi-god that walks among us mere mortals and his days of trying to make the rent are probably over. I’ve been to Pok Pok probably five or six times over the years but not recently; I’m happy to report that a recent visit proved that this is a beauty that is aging gorgeously.
Let’s revisit a little of what you can find here. I will start with the dish for which he is probably most famous: Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings.
I read somewhere that these wings are the stuff on which empires are built. That’s a great sum up; if you’ve ever cracked open one of these bad boys hot out of the wok, you know.
Because I own the cookbook I can reveal what is behind the curtain. Zaftig wings are marinated in fish sauce and garlic. More garlic is fried patiently until it is almost caramelized. The marinated wings are tossed with a rice flour and tempura batter, given a quick fry and then finished off in a very hot wok with both the earlier marinade, the garlic and a roasted chile paste. Further cooking of the wings and sauce results in a reduced sauce that delivers that signature caramel-y sticky goodness and a solar plexus chop of mellowed garlic and underlying heat. Underneath this comely cloak is too-tender for words, fall-off-the-bone meat.
Clearly this is not a dish to be attempted by neophytes or those hoping to whip up something quick and easy at the end of a long day. But sweet Lord, these wings are beyond amazing.
One bite in, it was all I could do but keep myself from snorting and flopping around the table in wing-infused ecstasy.
(Something tells me that with a recipe achievement like that under his belt, Ike can enjoy job security ad infinitum).
Believe it or not, another dish matched the wings in edible excellence. Yes, I know what you must be thinking; you’ve just met Albert Einstein and his mother only to hear the latter say “Boy, if you think Al is bright you should meet his younger brother, Melvin.”
Bear with me, people. Behold a special we nabbed, the last one available that day.
Yam Thau Pluu was a wing bean salad with ground pork, prawns and shallot in a roasted coconut dressing. Never having eaten the vegetable, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was delighted by its crunchiness and delicate pea/asparagus-like flavor. I was bewitched by the dressing, tangy with a deep reservoir of roasted flavor, and the shrimp, pork and peanuts turned the whole thing into a party. I was so glad I had snagged one of the last invites.
See this plate? We couldn’t let even this little bit to be claimed by the waiter; we polished off these remnants right after I snapped the pic.
So much more goodness yet ahead of us.
Khao Man Som Tam. Here we were privy to a double date of equally matched individuals; on the left a sprightly papaya salad, on the right a coconut sticky rice topped with a sweet, shredded Carlton pork topped with crispy shallots and cilantro. So good side-by-side, I predict a happy forever future for them.
And lastly, the Yam Tuna.
And no, it didn’t have yam (I understand that yam loosely translates into salad) but yes, that is canned tuna. And guess what? That canned tuna rocked our worlds (I will never look at a tuna can the same way again). Fish sauce, lime juice, ginger, garlic, Thai chilies, lemongrass and onion are all tossed together with the tuna and the end result is sublime. We ordered some extra sticky rice to go alongside, and the way it embraced all those piquant juices was extraordinary.
A turmeric drinking vinegar and soda and Thai iced coffee finished the deal.
Wings, salads, stir-fries, one-pot dishes and so much more — dishes unlike any you’ve had before: both delicate/refined and assertive/forceful, a dance of both sprites and steer.
So thank you, Andy Ricker– for picking Portland as your home, for sharing your obsessive love affair with and knowledge of regional Thai cuisine with us, and in the process, showing us that there is so much more to Thai food than the ubiquitous noodle dishes and unctuous curries we’ve seen before.
Most of all, thank you for allowing me to feel like for one shining moment this week like the guy in Avatar who discovers the magical blue world beneath him — suddenly I found myself in an other-worldly eating universe in which every taste was familiar and yet alien, and I marveled as ingredients jockeyed around in technicolor competition for attention of my jaded taste buds. Wake up!, they teased.
If I keep eating like this, one last double word for your consideration.