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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?

GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM: Ike’s wings and a drinking vinegar on the Lower East Side.
IMAGE: Jeffrey Gray Brandsted

What Ricker also has going for him is his obsessive nature—and his take on the cuisine of Northern Thailand.

“I never met a guy more driven,” says his friend Willy Vlautin, a musician and novelist who worked for Ricker as a house painter in the ’90s. “He grew up pretty poor, and I think he wanted to not be that way. He’s one of those guys who had to work twice as hard to get where other people were in the first place.”

A native of Vermont, Ricker had been cooking since he was 16, working in restaurants in order to make money to ski. Later he got into rock climbing, and took cooking jobs on sailboats so he could climb all around the world.

In 1987, when he was 24, Ricker went to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, where he ate a curry that changed his life. The bowl was filled with hed top, seasonal mushrooms that he remembers “look like puffballs—dark brown, slightly bitter.”

He thought Thai food was supposed to be sweet, like the sugary pad kee mao served stateside. But this was a bounty of distinct flavors—bitter and earthy and sour and sweet—combined to make hearty mountain food served as snack-sized bits, often with a the undercurrent of fish-sauce funk. It was seemingly contradictory items like “beef salad.” It was great. 

When Ricker moved to Portland in 1990, he worked as a sous chef under Chris Israel at Zefiro—a training ground for many of Portland’s best cooks—and worked as a commercial painter, eventually giving new paint jobs to several restaurants where he’d worked. 

But he kept making Northern Thai recipes. His best friend, photographer Adam Levy, liked Thai food, but the kind that most Americans know. “He always used to harsh my buzz, “ Levy says. “He knew what I was eating was the insipid honky formulation—Chinese food with a few different ingredients. We’d actually have fights about it.”

In 2005, Ricker bought a house on Southeast Division Street, and out front built a wooden shack with a kitchen and to-go window. He maxed out several credit cards and borrowed money from his mother to make payroll.

He rejected the conventional fare—no pad Thai on his menu.

“Think about how alienating Pok Pok could have been,” says Kurt Huffman, who later co-opened restaurants Ping and Foster Burger with Ricker. “Nothing you can pronounce. Nothing you recognize. Weird flavors. You don’t go out and say, ‘Let’s open up an Italian place that refuses to serve spaghetti, and everything on the menu’s gonna be in Italian.’”

But Pok Pok wasn’t off-putting. Actually, it was a food cart before Portland’s cart scene got big, and it served finger-licking chicken. People started telling each other immediately: Ricker had been to Thailand, and he’d brought back something out of a dream. “The charcoal-roasted game hen is killer,” wrote Oregonian food critic Karen Brooks six months after Pok Pok opened, “full of juiciness and crisp skin, with a tart, garlic-dizzy dipping sauce to kick it higher.” 

What saved Ricker were those rotisserie game hens and Ike’s wings—a dish named for Ich Truong, an employee who helped perfect the recipe that made Pok Pok famous.

With Ike’s wings, Ricker hit upon a trifecta of food cravings: meat, spice and sweetness. The wings are huge: Each one includes the full extension of the bird’s appendage—drumstick, flat and end joint—making them far larger than the typical Buffalo wing.

They’re marinated in garlic, sugar and fish sauce, tossed in tempura batter, and fried in hot oil. Then they’re painted with garlic and a fish-sauce caramel. They play to Portland’s love of artisan quality, exotic snobbery and decadent indulgence. They’re a recipe for addiction.

The Oregonian named Pok Pok its Restaurant of the Year in 2007. The same year, Food & Wine magazine declared Ike’s wings one of the 10 best restaurant dishes in America. Pok Pok has been featured on TV shows Diners, Drive-ins and Dives; Unique Eats; and The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

A 45-minute wait for a Pok Pok table soon became typical, and Ricker expanded. He opened Whiskey Soda Lounge across Division Street in 2009, serving dried cuttlefish and cocktails made with Thai drinking vinegars. 

He also opened Southeast Asian pub-grub restaurant Ping in Chinatown in 2009 with Huffman, and they launched Foster Burger a year later with Sel Gris’ Daniel Mondok. There’s a second takeout joint, Pok Pok Noi, in the Sabin neighborhood, and Ricker is working on a third Division Street restaurant dedicated solely to the curry-on-rice dishes called khao kaeng.

He has 120 people on his payroll.

Ricker soon found himself acclaimed as one of the nation’s best Thai chefs. He has become an evangelist for obscure Northern Thai favorites like laap, a duck dish, and khao soi, a curry-broth and noodle bowl.

“To this date,” Ricker says, “the vast majority of the Thai community in Portland believe I have a Thai wife. Either here in the United States or in Thailand, behind the scenes, running all this.”

Some bridle at Ricker’s presumption. Chawadee Nualkhair, a food journalist based in Thailand, berated him for calling yam samun phrai—lemongrass spicy salad—a Northern Thai dish. She says it’s actually from Central Thailand.

“I don’t have a problem with any Westerner presenting himself or herself as an authority on Northern Thai cuisine,” she says. “But that person—Western or Thai, it doesn’t matter—has to be right. It’s like if someone is a football commentator and they confuse Ben Roethlisberger with Tom Brady.”

In New York’s Lower East Side, customers flow in and out of Pok Pok Wing on a Thursday night as Matthew Adams eavesdrops on every conversation at the counter. He knows exactly what he wants to hear.

Adams is Ricker’s operations manager, first hired at Ping and running three of his boss’s Portland restaurants. He’s in New York to supervise Pok Pok Wing’s opening weeks. He knows working in Ricker’s restaurants is hazardous: In his first year at Ping, Adams gained 20 pounds.

Adams listens as cashier Taylor Warden takes orders.

“Would you like sticky rice?” Warden asks a customer.

Adams pulls him aside later to correct his delivery: “Would you like to order sticky rice?” Otherwise, Adams says, customers might think the rice is free.

Warden hands a mother and daughter at the counter their drinking vinegars—like a tart fruit syrup in soda water—and says, “Stir it a little.”

DINNER AT EIGHT: Papaya Pok Pok is crushed with a pestle and served on marble counters.
IMAGE: Jeffrey Gray Brandsted
They gave their drinks a light swish with their straws. Adams corrects again: “You want to give it a good stir.” 

This is part of Ricker’s plan: close supervision and tight control over every aspect of the Pok Pok meal.

“To be able to come to one of the most difficult cities to open a restaurant, and to do it in two months, that’s pretty impressive,” Ricker says. “And it’s not because of any Herculean strength on my part. Everything we do has been about minimizing or eliminating everything that can go wrong.”

For example, take the chilies used in the restaurant’s namesake dish, Papaya Pok Pok. The name comes from the sound the chef’s mortar on pestle—pok pok, pok pok—as it crushes long beans, tamarind, Thai chili, garlic, fish sauce, palm sugar and peanuts with green papaya shavings.

The heat of the chilies changes seasonally, and they come from a dozen or more places in Asia. That means the dish requires a constant rebalancing of the recipe. 

“And the only one who’s capable of doing that is Andy,” Levy says.

Ricker’s dreams are moving beyond the place where that kind of control is possible.

He has a cookbook coming out this year—still untitled—and is retailing the drinking vinegars under the name Som. He wants to open a shop to sell ingredients and equipment—laap spice, steamers, rice baskets—to go with the recipes. He talks of opening Pok Pok Wing outlets across New York, like a Thai version of Shake Shack. 

“You could potentially open these all over the city,” he says of Pok Pok Wing. “You could have a central commissary that functions as a particle accelerator. This place on the Lower East Side is totally a science experiment.”

Yet as Ricker stretches himself further and further, he remains fundamentally alone in understanding his operation. He sold his share of Ping and Foster Burger last year, to solely focus on Pok Pok.

“That’s also, I think, why he’s so attached to the idea of the wing shack,” Huffman says. “It allows you to be excellent. The question is, can he get enough people to help him build this thing as big as he wants?”

Ricker is trying to spread the expertise. He has taken at least six members of his staff to Thailand with him. And among his employees, he inspires fierce loyalty. When Pok Pok threw a Christmas party last year, nearly all of his 120 employees wore temporary tattoos of the illustration that ran with the Bon Appétit article: Ricker riding a fish.

When it comes to Pok Pok, Huffman says of Ricker, “He is the source of truth. The only way to scale that is to have people who work for him who are also a source of truth.”

Ricker knows he’s got to back away from the kitchen.

“You don’t see a lot of old chefs,” he says. “I’d like to live to at least 60. There’s plenty of people out there who can do this. I know I’m not the only person in the whole world who’s interested.”

To achieve the national brand he wants, Ricker will have to release control of his cooking. But sometimes it seems like Pok Pok won’t let go of him. 

Near midnight, Ricker returns to Pok Pok Wing after dealing with problems at the unopened shop in Brooklyn. He and Adams look proudly over the pile of receipts. Adams spots an anomaly. “There’s a Portland number on here,” he says.

Ricker looks closer at the receipts. The two men reach a realization simultaneously, and start to laugh. 

For Pok Pok Wing’s first 10 days in business, Ricker has been giving the citizens of New York his personal cellphone number. 

IMAGE: Jeffrey Gray Brandsted


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