Pok Pok: Chiang Mai Arrives in New York

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Pok Pok

127 Columbia Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231 (between Kane and DeGraw; map); 718-923-9322; pokpokny.com
Service: Friendly; like if your Thai in-laws all had beards and skinny jeans
Setting: Small, cramped, and communal, like a side street in Bangkok
Must-Haves: Papaya Pok Pok, Laap Meuang, Sai Ua Samun Phrai, Muu Kham Waan
Cost: Shared main courses $10 to $14 (order about 2 per guest)
Grade: A

To say that New Yorkers have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pok Pok—the Brooklyn branch of James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker's Northern Thai phenomenon in Portland, OR—is like saying that children of the 70's were eagerly awaiting the return of Star Wars to the big screen. The difference is, of course, that in this case, Ricker delivered, and how.

A couple weeks ago Francis Lam wrote a fascinating article for the New York Times about why it takes an American Chef to bring authentic Thai flavors to the United States. Among the arguments presented, the ones I found most compelling were first, that as an outsider, Ricker was able to explore the cuisines of Northern Thailand without "the baggage of having to follow Mom's recipes to the letter," allowing him to draw from multiple sources and disciplines before presenting the food as his own.

Second, and perhaps even more important, is that as a foreign chef who decided to open a Thai restaurant in the United States, the only reason he does it is from a passion for the cuisine. Thai restaurants in New York are a dime a dozen. As Thai food became more popular, immigrants chefs (Thai and otherwise) saw the difficulties in adapting their cuisines to the American palate, and rather than take a risk with traditional flavors, instead sought the easy road, sometimes offering menus that were literally exact carbon copies, misspellings and all.

For years, New Yorkers had to head out to the outer boroughs to get their Thai fix, and even then, it was largely Southern Thai food—dishes based largely on curry pastes and coconut milk—that they found. It's only in the last year or so with the opening of Manhattan restaurants like Zabb Elee and Harold Dieterle's Kin Shop that good options for authentic-in-spirit (if not exact execution) food have primed New Yorker's appetites for more of the coconut milk-free, dried chili, and spice-based dishes of Northern Thailand.

After a ridiculously good meal at the Luckrice Chiang Mai Dinner with Ricker and Dave Thompson, I was hopeful that Pok Pok would live up to the hype, so a few weeks ago I headed back to Brooklyn with National Managing Editor Erin Zimmer and Harold Dieterle to see what's up.

Short order: This shit is legit.


Yam Samun Phrai

House cocktails make good use of infused spirits and sipping vinegars. They tend to run more refreshing than potent—perfect for sipping in their backyard picnic tables. 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. A Rhubarb Blush ($10) treads into Negroni territory with its balance of bitter aperol and gin with a splash of rhubarb bitters and lime juice.

Want a snack to go with those cocktails? How about House Roasted Red Peanuts with Chillies 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.

Even before your food arrives, the scene is intensely evocative of Thailand. There are no frills, no creature comforts asides from clean floors and friendly service. The tables are small and tight, the silverware is made of thin stamped metal and is often bent, and the tablecloths are plastic. Indeed, in this environment, you're almost forced to engage in conversation with the people you're bumping elbows with sitting next to you, and that's the point—Thai food is an inherently communal affair.

The main menu comes divided into Aahaan Kap Khap (food eaten with rice largely composed of salads, soups, and stews), Aahaan Yaang (grilled meats), and Aahaan Jaan Diaw (one-plate noodle or rice-based dishes). You'll want to order about two per person to make a full meal.


Papaya Pok Pok

Of the salads, the Papaya Pok Pok ($8.50) is essential. 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.

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.


Tamarind Leaf Salad special

Some dishes make you wonder why certain ingredients aren't more popular. A special course of Tamarind Leaf (tamarind has 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. This is not the first or last time I'd be surprised by an ingredient—it's as if Ricker had hired George Lucas's entire creative team to create new vegetables, herbs, and spices for him to work with. Anonymous sources speak of secret underground herb railroads direct from Chiang Mai.

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 Laap Meuang ($14) is deep, dark, and intimidating (Harold says he tasted pork liver in the mix), 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.


Laap Meuang

The menu stumbles occasionally. Though the idea of pork belly and shrimp cooked together under a tangle of bean thread noodles in a clay pot for the Kung Op Wun Sen ($15) sounds intriguing, it's tough to get at the shrimp and pork fast enough to keep them from overcooking. The best part was the spicy-sweet mung bean threads, which effectively captured the pork and shrimp-scented steam rising from the dish.

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.

Things pick up again with the Hoi Thawt ($14)—crispy seafood pancakes cooked in circular cast-iron pans—served in the streets of Chiang Mai, it may not cost the $14, but there it's 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 version than the ubiquitous Huy Fong rooster sauce).

Ricker's way with pork is almost as good as his way with herbs. A trio of preparations came next. 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.


Sau Ua Samun Phrai

An excellent juicy 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.

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 Thai combination, without the brightness of fresh herbs and vegetables that marks Southern Thai curries and soups.


Sankhaya Durian

Thai desserts are notoriously tough for foreigners (myself included), with flavors that are either unusually pungent or intensely sweet. Ricker wisely tones it down at Pok Pok. 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. With the Sankhaya Durian ($7), 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.

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.

A scoop of bourbon ice cream arrives dunked into a cup of cola with an Amarena cherry on top. The Whiskeysoda Float ($8) is a sweet finish to the meal that may not be thoroughly Thai, but is definitely thoroughly delicious.

That Ricker chose to open his restaurant in a largely residential waterfront neighborhood a good 20 minute walk from the closest subway station is a telling move. He's wanted a neighborhood restaurant, and Pok Pok strives for nothing more than good food served by a pleasant staff at reasonable prices. That it seems to effortlessly achieve something much greater is a testament to his passion.

There are those willing to travel halfway around the globe to get a taste of real Thai food. Compared to that, a $2 subway fare and 20 minute walk ain't much of a pilgrimage after all.