New York is having a love affair with Asian cooking, and Andy Ricker’s three terrific Thai eateries are among the most respected restaurants of all.
There’s the flagship Pok Pok Ny in Brooklyn, modeled after his original outpost in Portland. An infinitely more casual restaurant than you would expect from a James Beard Award winner, you’ll find plastic tablecloths, pandanus leaf-laced water poured into metal cups, and an assortment of gently-priced, Northern Thai dishes, like Duck Laap, Crispy Egg Crepes with Steamed Mussels, Pork Belly Curry with Tamarind, and Honey-Marinated Spare Ribs.
Then there’s the recently opened Whiskey Soda Lounge just next door (which received a starred review from The New York Times), showcasing delicious “drinking food,” like 5-Spice Stewed Chitlins, Squid Salad, and Ricker’s infamous, Fish Sauce-slathered Chicken Wings, alongside cocktails made with homemade Som Drinking Vinegars. And there’s Pok Pok Phat Thai on the Lower East Side (formerly Pok Pok Wing), which focuses on authentic renditions of the popular, but too often bastardized dish. You can order your Pork Fat-cooked Rice Noodles topped with either Ground Pork, Fresh Prawns, or both, but don’t even think about asking for Chicken. “I think any success Pok Pok has had is due to our dogged pursuit of what we are doing,” said Ricker. “There will never be a burger on our menu no matter what happens to our business levels and no matter how trendy burgers get.”
Ricker also talks about his brand new, best selling cookbook, Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand, and addresses the hullaballoo around white chefs cooking Asian food, why everyone should expect to pay for rice, and the enduring myth about the endless Pok Pok lines.
Were you always interested in food and cooking growing up?
Yeah… we didn’t really go out much. We cooked almost every meal at home, so I learned how to cook at a pretty young age.
What do you think you would have become if not a chef and restaurateur?
A tugboat captain.
What sparked your love for Southeast Asian food?
Traveling in Southeast Asia.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
“Just tell your story.” My friend Willy Vlautin, author of several excellent novels and leader of the band Richmond Fontaine told me this. He has kept the same voice his whole career, developing it subtly, working on it, and making it better. I strive for that every day.
What brought you to NYC for your first major expansion of the Pok Pok brand?
I like NYC a whole lot, and there seemed to be an interest in Pok Pok here.
What particularly excites you about the dining scene here as opposed to in Portland and vice versa?
Massive diversity in NYC makes it one of the most interesting dining scenes in the world. Portland has the best ingredients, though, locally farmed, gathered and produced at a reasonable price. NYC can’t compete there.
While you have Pok Pok Phat Thai in Manhattan, Brooklyn is home to Pok Pok Ny, your New York flagship, and now, Whiskey Soda Lounge as well. What made you decide to lay down roots in the far-removed neighborhood of the Columbia Waterfront District?
I love this neighborhood and the folks that live here. There’s a great view of Manhattan. It’s kind of an obscure location but not too far from the train, and has an interesting history.
You were kind of thrust into the position of poster child for a current spate of white chefs cooking Asian cuisine. Why do you think this became such a hot button topic for people?
I don’t know, really. Probably lots of reasons. I notice though that there’s not a lot of criticism of American chefs cooking Italian or Spanish food despite what their ethnic background is (Irish guy making some of the best Italian food in the city, anyone?)
You were more recently involved in a bit of an imbroglio about the fact that you charge for rice. Is this indicative of New York’s perception of Asian cuisine overall, that it should automatically come with free rice, or is this a larger, nationwide expectation?
It’s a larger issue than just rice. We seem to think that Asian food should be cheap and plentiful no matter what effort or ingredients go into it or what rent or wage is paid to produce it.
Why does the public persist in thinking that Pok Pok Ny is impossible to get into?
When Pok Pok Ny first opened, we had some pretty crazy lines, followed by some pretty staggering wait times. While this may seem like a great thing on the face of it, it creates a problem in the long run when you’re in a relatively remote neighborhood (by NYC standards, anyway… I still don’t think a 10-minute walk through a beautiful neighborhood from the Bergen F stop is that remote). Because the story becomes ingrained in the media and public’s minds.
So how long would you say the waits are nowadays?
The fact is that those lines and wait times have significantly shrunk, and during the weeknights we often don’t have a wait at all, except for a short one at prime time… just like every other popular restaurant in NYC. And when we do have a wait, there’s the new Whiskey Soda Lounge just a few doors away. You can wait there, and our hosts will coordinate your return to Pok Pok Ny when a table is ready. In a few weeks, we will be moving Pok Pok Ny to the same corner as Whiskey Soda Lounge, to a space that doubles our indoor capacity, so that should help get folks settled more quickly, too.
With so many restaurants to oversee, how often do you find yourself behind the burners nowadays? Do you ever miss just cooking?
Mostly for events, which there are a lot of, is when I get to cook. I do a lot of cooking when I travel to Thailand. I don’t miss being a line cook… that’s a youngster’s job.
If you were to eat as a guest in your own restaurants, what would you order and why?
Whatever is on the specials board and whatever I have a fancy for.
Besides recipes, what do you hope readers will take away from your brand new Pok Pok cookbook?
That there is more to Thai food than curries and stir-fries, though curries and stir-fries are delicious, too.
What are one or two recipes in the book that you find yourself making most at home?
I don’t cook at home.
What do you find yourself doing (and eating) on a rare day off?
I head to Chinatown and find a spot that looks lively and dive in.
What would you say is the strangest ingredient in your home fridge right now?
A bottle of vodka.
What current restaurant trends to you truly embrace, and which do you wish would just die already?
Specialization is something I embrace; doing one or two things really well is a trend I’d like to see spread.
What are some of your favorite places to get Thai food in the city (besides your own)?
Ayada and Som Tam Der.
What do you consider to be the single greatest achievement in your career?
Getting the Pok Pok shack open. It almost killed me, but grew to what Pok Pok is now.
What’s next for you? More restaurants? Another cookbook or product line? A foray into food television, perhaps?
Maybe, probably and unlikely.