Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings ($12.50)
Ironically, one of Pok Pok's most popular dishes (and the namesake for their Lower East Side Pok Pok Wing) Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings ($12.50) are based on a Portland cook's Vietnamese recipe. Marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep fried, then tossed in more fish sauce and studded with a ton of fried garlic, they're a sweet, sticky, meaty mess. Despite the dish's hordes of fans, I personally find the fish sauce flavor and sweetness to be a little overpowering—I'd prefer a bit more heat (even with their "spicy" version), and a more balanced acidity. But that didn't stop me from licking my fingers after putting away more than my share of the jumbo wings.
Rhubarb Blush ($10)
Bitter aperol and gin combined with tart lime juice and rhubarb bitters in this refreshing Negroni-esque variant.
House Roasted Red Peanuts with Chilies and Lime Leaf ($5)
A quarter pound of roasted peanuts arrive in street vendor wax paper packets, releasing a burst of bright lime leaf and chili when the pouch is opened. It's what those Trader Joe's Thai cashews—that everyone was all about a few years ago—always wanted to be.
Papaya Pok Pok ($8.50)
Shredded green papaya comes properly pounded to order with a mortar and pestle (pok pok is an onomatopoeia for the sound it makes) to release its tart, bracing juice. It's flavored with lime, tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar, and a chili heat that's not for the faint-hearted. Only in Thailand (and perhaps Zabb Elee) have I had som tum so flavorful and balanced.
Pok Pok Gin and Tonic ($9)
Harold pounded a Pok Pok Gin and Tonic ($9) with house-infused Kaffir Lime gin served with lemon, though he preferred to replace the tonic with soda water to better appreciate the aromatic gin.
Tamarind Leaf Salad
Some dishes make you wonder why certain ingredients aren't more popular. A special course of Tamarind Leaf (tamarinds have edible leaves?!) lies somewhere between the wet crunchy texture of watercress and the mild sweetness of spinach, tossed with plenty of fried shallots and a tart fish sauce-based vinaigrette.
Kung Op Wun Sen ($15)
Though the idea of pork belly and shrimp cooked together under a tangle of bean thread noodles in a clay pot sounds intriguing, it's tough to get at the shrimp and pork fast enough to keep it from overcooking. The best part was the spicy-sweet threads which effectively captured the pork and shrimp-scented steam rising from the dish.
Sai Ua Samun Phrai ($14)
The excellent grilled pork sausage, flavored with charred galangal and a slew of herbs and spices, gets top billing in the menu description, but the Sai Ua Samun Phrai ($14) is really about that small bowl of green stuff in the middle. The Nam Phrik Num is a thick Northern Thai sauce of charred green chilies pounded with shallots and garlic. It's got an intense smokiness and deep smoldering heat that miraculously works equally well with sweet pumpkin as it does with crisp pork cracklings.
Hoi Thawt ($14)
The Hoi Thawt ($14)—crispy seafood pancakes cooked in circular cast-iron pans—served in the streets of Chiang Mai may not cost the $14, but they're also not made with sparklingly fresh P.E.I. mussels and garlic chives. Crisp and eggy, they come with a side of Shark brand Sri Racha (a less sweet brand than the ubiquitous rooster sauce).
Da Chom's Laap Meuang ($14)
Aside from the fabulous duck larb at Harold's Kin Shop, most of the Thai chopped meat salads in the city are sweet, wet, and decidedly mild affairs. Pok Pok's is deep, dark, and intimidating with a brooding dry chili heat, plenty of aromatics, sweet fried shallots, and a handful of pork cracklings. Ricker learned the dish from the 84-year-old father of a friend in Saluang Nai near Chiang Mai.
Muu Kham Waan at Pok Pok ($16)
The greatest food memory I have of Bangkok are of the thin slivers of charred pork neck I tried in the recently closed Suan Lum Night Market. The tender fat was crisped like bacon around the edges, and it bore a meltingly soft center with a sweet soy glaze and a bright sauce of herbs and lime juice. I've yet to taste anything quite as spectacular. Ricker's Muu Kham Waan ($16), which uses pork sourced from Niman Ranch, comes as close as I've had. (See full review here).
Yam Samun Phrai ($12)
One of the few dishes available in vegan/vegetarian-friendly forms (fish sauce and pork sneakily make their way into most dishes on the menu), the Yam Samun Phrai ($12) was also amongst the handful of dishes that didn't blow me away. There was nothing wrong with it, per se, but a salad of carrots and parsnip with lemongrass, lime leaf, sawtooth herb, fried shallots, dry shrimp, ground pork, and coconut milk seems like it should pack a bit more flavor.
Kaeng Hung Leh ($14)
The Kaeng Hung Leh ($14), a stew of pork belly and shoulder comes to the table in a hot stone bowl. Whisps of steam curl up with aromas of ginger and turmeric—or is that galangal and Sichuan peppercorns? Ricker's specialty seems to be in presenting dishes that are at once familiar and comforting yet exotic. My grandmother never made this for me, but I could sure imagine having a grandmother who did. The flavors are dry, deep, and sweet, a decidedly Northern Thais combination, without the brightness of fresh herbs and vegetables that marks Southern Thai curries and soups.
Sankhaya Durian ($7)
You can count me among the camp who don't go for the sweet, pungent, rotten-onion aroma of durian, a fruit notoriously banned from hotels and public transit in parts of Asia. Here, the fruit is turned into a milder coconut palm-sugar custard, served on a pile of sweetened, coconut-scented sticky rice. It's like durian for beginners.
Whiskeysoda Float ($8)
A scoop of bourbon ice cream dunked into a cup of cola with an Amarena cherry on top. It's a sweet finish to the meal that may not be thoroughly Thai, but is definitely thoroughly delicious.
Khao Niaw Mamuang ($7)
Another sticky-rice based dessert, the Khao Niaw Mamuang ($7) is flavored with pandan leaf (like their water) and topped with yellow mango and sesame seeds, a hint of salt coming through from a briny coconut cream.