I stepped out of Pok Pok NY around 7PM, but almost left without asking an important question. I rushed back to the check-in desk and requested a table for a party of three. The Response: A 90 minute wait.
It pays off to dine early (and with friends!) at Chef Andy Ricker’s newest creation in Brooklyn. Around 25 people were lined up before the restaurant’s doors opened at 5:30PM ( I was #12). During my seating, I rationalized that it would be more comfortable to sit in 85 degree weather instead of eating inside in a peaceful, air-conditioned space.
To me, the backyard tent decorated with bugs, blue plastic tablecloths, flower pots, and dreadful Christmas lights were so much more inviting. The sweet, garlicky dish like Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings add to the wonderful outdoor vibe. I’ve never been to Thailand (or any other Asian country other than Korea) so this meal gave me a positive impression of Northern Thai food. Most importantly, this is only a small glimpse of Thailand’s regional cuisines. I’m hungry. I’m curious.
The shredded papaya salad is one of Pok Pok’s specialties. From the first bite, you notice the impact flavor of the dried shrimp and fish sauce. I immediately associate the dish with salted shrimp (saewoojut) which has similarly briny aroma. Then you taste the after-notes of spicy thai chili, tamarind and lime juice which carry acidity and spiciness that begin to linger around your tongue. Water is not your option. It will only disperse the thai chili oil all your mouth. Cool it down with the sticky rice.
BAM, y’all. Although Pok Pok’s menu is hard to read without squinting, it helpfully denotes all the information you might need to know about the dish before ordering. For many of the spicy items, there is a Needs Sticky Rice suggestion. The sticky rice does indeed help alleviate the lingering spiciness of the chili oil. It has the iconic sticky adhesiveness without being either too mushy or rock solid. Perfect.
The mangalitsa pork neck is rubbed with a generous amount of garlic, coriander root and black pepper. The umami is from the soy and sugar blend and the char of the neck comes after getting some love under a bed of charcoal. The neck is soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.
To cool down the spiciness, Pok Pok serves the dish alongside an ice bed of mustard greens. We didn’t know how to approach the mustard greens. Our server didn’t either so we simply wolfed it down like a group of voracious rabbits in the springtime. Each piece of pork has a strong smell of cilantro. The theme of this dish is northern thai drinking food, leaving traditional American bar food in the dust.
The spicy isaan flank steak salad comes from a northeastern region in Thailand. The cuts of flank steak are served under lemongrass and mint cilantro. It’s similar to what people would get as a starter salad at a stereotypical Korean barbecue joint, but this salad is more sour and fishier. The spice from the chili powder dressing makes this dish a perfect match with the beloved sticky rice.
Dessert has a strong presence in Pok Pok’s menu. The tropical fruits and sweet pastries are a delightful surprise after the spicy dishes. The mango is soft and the sticky rice is very similar to the sticky rice served in the boxes. The sprinkle of sesame seeds and the salted coconut cream is a creamy relief. My friends and I did crave for a colder sticky rice and mango (instead of a lukewarm dish) in the summertime.
For the $7 price tag, I wished for a more generous portion of the Chinese fried donuts. But the outer crust and the soft inside justify almost any price tag. The condensed milk ice cream is sweet and the bitter shot of Vietnamese coffee is a pleasant wake-up call. This dish was much more pleasurable than the mango (and possibly more enjoyable than the durian on the menu). Dip the donuts into the coffee and spoon the ice cream right into your mouth. It’s a refreshing end to the night.
Thai chefs have often been reluctant to share their secrets with other countrymen. However, Chef Andy Ricker’s foreignness allows him to pick the brains of these native chefs and learn all about all their secrets. HE’S WHITE. They don’t see Chef Andy as competition.
This translates to Pok Pok serving the fundamental elements of Northern Thai cuisine to a mass audience while maintaining a decently high price New York City tag. It’s a disaster for my wallet, but a blessing for my belly. It becomes cheaper if you bring lots of people and share everything. Most importantly, it’s worth the trip to Thailand Brooklyn.