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February 1st, 2012 12:01 am AARON MESH | Cover Story

Thai Hard

Andy Ricker takes Pok Pok to New York. Do his wings have a prayer?

lede_pokpokwing_3813POK POK WING - IMAGE: Jeffrey Gray Brandsted
Pok Pok?

The woman in the woolen hat mouths the words on the sidewalk in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Andy Ricker has opened the latest outpost of his Thai-food realm.

She scrunches her face as she reads the sign. Pok Pok?

MARATHON MAN: Andy Ricker has decorated the walls of Manhattan restaurant Pok Pok Wing with Thai record covers.
IMAGE: Jeffrey Gray Brandsted
But she never glances at the narrow walk-down storefront below, where behind the window a pan full of huge Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings crackles over an electric range. The 15 customers packed in the tiny dining room chatter about the three choices on the menu, and overhead a vintage Thai-pop cover of “Hit the Road Jack” trills from the speakers.

She mouths the words again, as if satisfied she’s got it right. Pok Pok. She moves on.

The funny name of Ricker’s restaurant, the latest Portland export to New York’s food scene, is just one more oddity here. The question of how many New Yorkers will want to solve the mystery behind the name and actually try the food is key to the success of Portland’s most celebrated chef.

Seven years ago, Ricker opened his first Pok Pok in a wooden shack on Portland’s Southeast Division Street, with $60 left in his bank account. Nine months ago, he won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Northwest Award in what amounts to the Oscars of food. He has opened or co-opened five restaurants in Portland, with a sixth on the way, because he’s the white guy who serves the obscure, difficult Northern Thai dishes that native Thai cooks don’t dare try on Americans.

Now Ricker is leveraging the whole thing—using $300,000 of his own money and small-business loans—in his bid to become a major player in the nation’s toughest culinary scene.

“The time is now to pull the trigger, if you’re going to pull the trigger,” Ricker says. “Is there a chance I could get my ass handed to me? Of course. New York loves to love and they love to hate.” 

Ricker’s big moment comes as Portland enjoys its own fling with New Yorkers. Our Stumptown coffee is now their coffee. Our TV show is their show. Will our chicken wings be theirs too? Even if you’ve never eaten Ike’s wings, Ricker’s gamble is by extension this city’s as well. 

THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS: Pok Pok WIng in Manhattan is packed.
IMAGE: Jeffrey Gray Brandsted

Succeeding in New York is exponentially harder than succeeding in Portland. It’s more expensive, the attention spans are shorter, and restaurateurs are fiercely protective of their territory—both geographic and culinary.

Ricker doesn’t just want to survive in New York. He’s opening two places at once and wants his restaurant to explode into a chain that will bring Northern Thai street food to all parts of the city. 

To succeed, Ricker will need skill and luck. But he may also need to move beyond the intense DIY ethos that made him a success in Portland. He obsessively controlled every detail of Pok Pok to the exclusion of nearly everything else, making quiet but unyielding demands that his people cook Thai food his way. 

But if he’s going to expand—if he’s going to have an empire that spans two coasts—he must grow Pok Pok beyond the point where he can possibly control it.

And that’s a place where Andy Ricker has never been before.

Ricker is 48 and looks like Bruce Willis—cold gray eyes, thick jowls, and the intensity of a detective on one last stakeout. He speaks softly but swears so often it’s as if he’s being paid by the f-bomb.

He arrived in New York as a foodie celebrity. Eater NY, the influential food blog, has wryly dubbed him the “chicken wing messiah.” In November, a New York Times freelancer followed him around Thailand. Bon Appétit magazine gave his recipes its center spread in January. 

But right now, Ricker doesn’t need press. What he needs is a cooking scale. 

It’s 10 minutes before the restaurant-supply shops in the Bowery close, and Ricker walks double-speed eight blocks west across Manhattan. 

“I don’t have a life outside the restaurants,” he says. “I don’t have kids. I don’t have any other significant interests. I’m single at the moment, and probably will be for some time. I’m a pretty ambitious guy. I’m in survival mode.”

THREE WAY THAI: Pok Pok Wing’s Three Dishes.
IMAGE: Jeffrey Gray Brandsted

He makes it to the restaurant-supply shop Bari Equipment with five minutes to spare. The store is owned by a manifestly proud Italian family; a framed poster shows Don Corleone holding a slicer and reads, “I’m gonna make you a pizza you can’t refuse.”

Ricker hunts for a scale amid the aisles of blenders, ovens and plastic ketchup and mustard bottles. The owner asks him the name of his restaurant.

“Pok Pok,” says Ricker.

“Pok Pok?”

“Over on Rivington.”

Down Rivington,” corrects the owner. “By the bridge.”

Ricker chuckles. His restaurant, Pok Pok Wing, is indeed a block from the Williamsburg Bridge. The old guy is marking his turf for the outsider.

New York City’s dining market is notoriously tough. The most commonly cited number, first asserted in the 2004 documentary Eat This New York, is that 80 percent of new restaurants in the city fail within five years. A restaurant lasting three years is a marvel. 

But many people believe Ricker will make it. “Out-of-town chefs almost always wash out in New York,” says New York-based food writer Josh Ozersky, who founded the Grub Street blog and now writes for Time. “They never succeed. They get chewed up and spit out. The city invariably roughs them up pretty good and sends them back to whatever province they came from. But Andy may be the exception.”

LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN: Pok Pok Ny, Ricker’s full-menu restaurant in Red Hook, has a view of Lower Manhattan.
IMAGE: Jeffrey Gray Brandsted
Mark Bitterman, who recently expanded his Portland salt shop the Meadow to a second location in Manhattan, is more succinct: “Ricker is going to destroy.” 

And he’s trying to do it twice.

Pok Pok Wing is in the former Rivington Street location of a Chinese pork-bun restaurant called BaoHaus. Ricker redecorated it himself in a collage of rainbow-colored Thai vinyl albums from a used-record shop in Bangkok.

His second shop is Pok Pok Ny. (In Thai, “Ny”—pronounced “nigh”—means “in the city.”) It’s on Columbia Street, on the west edge of Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood with handsome brownstones that look like the exterior shots from The Cosby Show. Workers are still putting the place together.

But the unopened shop—cluttered with boxes of papayas, cabbage wedges and roasted peanuts—is currently serving as the prep kitchen for Pok Pok Wing. An employee drives the prepared food across the Manhattan Bridge to Ricker’s only open shop. Ricker concedes he’ll be lucky if Pok Pok Ny is open by March.

Ricker has already been discovered by Portland expats. During one evening at Pok Pok Wing, a half dozen customers volunteer to the cashier that they knew Ricker’s food from Portland.

“My parents live in Northwest Portland,” a twentysomething woman says. “I dropped my phone when I found out this was coming here. Now they think I have no reason to visit them.”

And Portland has clearly been discovered by New York. Stumptown Coffee now operates a roaster in Red Hook, a half mile from Pok Pok Ny. The Stumptown cafe in the Garment District’s Ace Hotel—just like the Portland Ace, but fancier—has Friday-afternoon lines 20 people deep. In March, former Castagna chef Matthew Lightner is opening Altera, a restaurant in Tribeca. The headline of a Grub Street article last September asked, “Is New York About to Become New Portland?”

All of which runs in Ricker’s favor. Everything else seems to run against him.

Matt Piacentini, a co-owner of Portland’s Ace Hotel restaurant Clyde Common, recently started a New York eatery called the Beagle. He says the Beagle is gaining an industry following (“We’re doing extremely well considering none of us is anybody”), but the challenge is immense.

“To put it plainly, there are thousands and thousands of places that are better than you,” says Piacentini, who has never met Ricker. “You get absolutely trampled, like a train running over a fly. Right now, everybody’s really excited because these legendary chicken wings are coming to town. But how long is it going to be before people say, ‘Pok Pok is bullshit. This place in Queens has been doing that for three generations’?”

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