Andy Ricker has kept pad Thai (or phat Thai) off the menu at his restaurant Pok Pok for a couple of reasons. To start, he wanted people to order new dishes they may be less familiar with. And just as importantly, Thai hawkers and streetside restaurants that make phat Thai often specialize in it to the exclusion of other dishes. To that end, he's transformed Pok Pok Wing on the Lower East Side into Pok Pok Phat Thai. We stopped in on opening day last Friday for a taste of short, noodle-focused menu.
Ricker's noodles are a far cry from the sticky-sweet versions you'll find almost everywhere else in the city. The're barely sweet at all, with genuine spice and fishy funk from both fish sauce and dried shrimp. The basic Phat Thai Thamadaa ($8) features soft rice noodles cooked in lard with crisp squares of tofu, egg, preserved radish, and peanuts. The sauce, made with tamarind, fish sauce, preserved radish, and palm sugar, is pale compared to the orangey takeout versions elsewhere around town. It's not just less sweet; the flavor is overall more subtle and developed, allowing all those strong flavors to come through in a controlled way.
Amidst all the lard and meat addition options, there's also a vegan Phat Thai Jay ($8), the same as the regular phat Thai but without all the animal products. The noodles are less sweet and fishy, but don't taste like they're missing something.
Perhaps even better than the noodles is the Hoi Thawt ($10), an omelette tossed with a starchy batter and steamed mussels, all of which is broken up in the pan so crisp crust intermingles with soft egg and sweet mollusk. The Shark brand sriracha on the side is more sweet and balanced than the Rooster brand we're used to. You can also find this on the menu at the Brooklyn restaurant; the move to Manhattan hasn't altered its quality.
There's free pandan-scented water in a thermos as some of the famed drinking vinegars on the drinks menu, but also Kafae Boran ($4), Thai-style sock-brewed coffee with both sweetened and evaporated milks. It's really sweet, but with a pronounced bitterness like Vietnamese coffee. Good stuff, but one cup may be enough for two to share. Next time we'll try a version with just (unsweetened) evaporated milk.
This was all just on day one, of course, so we'll be back to try some more noodles soon and let the kitchen get into a normal rhythm. But Pok Pok Phat Thai already tastes like the grown up answer to sickly sweet Thai noodles that we've been waiting for. The restaurant is open seven days a week from 4 to 11 PM and accepts cash and debit cards—no credit.
Pok Pok Phat Thai
137 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002 (map)