For years, it was common wisdom among New York chowhounds that to find real Thai food, you had to take an excursion to Queens. But that was before Andy Ricker landed in the city, bringing his wildly popular Pok Pok concept with him from Portland, OR and turning Brooklyn’s Columbia Street Waterfront into a destination for turmeric catfish, Chiang Mai–style khao soi, and glass noodles shot through with sour pork sausage and chiles.
Instead of hawking Americanized dishes like Pad See Ew or attempting to add creative flair to Southeast Asian flavors, Ricker takes a sociological approach to his craft, obsessively recreating dishes he tasted in Thailand without letting ego get in the way of tradition. Turns out, keeping it real gets the people going.
“I’m not naïve. What we do is unique, so I knew if we did well here there’d be some attention. [In Portland], we were operating out of a kitchen the size of a studio bedroom and had a dining room the size of a living room. The day-to-day operations of opening a restaurant were so overwhelming that they were all I focused on,” admits Ricker. “There’s this perception that restaurants are all sexy and great, and unless they’re blowing smoke up your ass, a chef’s never going to say every day’s a dream.”
A move into more commodious digs up the block reduced the seemingly never-ending queues at Pok Pok Ny, but the joint remains packed nightly, often with patrons who have already prefaced dinner with a Salted Lime Tom Collins at Ricker’s adjacent hangout, Whiskey Soda Lounge.
Unless they’re blowing smoke up your ass, a chef’s never going to say every day’s a dream.
Although the James Beard Award-winning chef started cooking at a young age, he attributes his career path less to passion and more to being a victim of circumstance. “There weren’t many options where I was in small-town Vermont,” he says. “You went to a restaurant or a sawmill.”
Ricker chose the kitchen over lumber, and headed to Vail “purely because I could ski during the day and cook at night. It wasn’t for a while, until I got a job at an Italian restaurant, where something clicked and I had a moment, like, ‘Holy shit, I’m pretty good at this.’ This was something beyond a way to pay the rent. I realized, ‘Fuck it, I’m a cook.’’’
Ricker then embarked on a number of eye-opening travels, including poignant visits to Thailand that convinced him that it was his fate to bring the country’s rich, vibrant cuisine stateside. Today, Ricker flits back and forth between New York (which is also home to his Lower East Side rice-noodle joint, Pok Pok Phat Thai) and Portland, where the original Pok Pok continues to thrive, along with Whiskey Soda Lounge and the offshoots Pok Pok Noi and Sen Yai Noodles. Month-long stretches in Thailand to research new recipes are also part of his regular routine.
On the heels of his book Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand (Ten Speed Press), he’s tackling another two-book deal. He’s also become the subject of a brand-new VICE documentary, Farang. “They wanted to watch me open my noodle restaurant in Portland, “ he says. “They didn’t follow me around. As long as I don’t have to do any special shit except for what I normally do, then fine.”
What Ricker “normally” does appears to be working out well. From homemade Hamburger Helper to eye-opening Thai recipes, here are 10 of the dishes that helped transform a white guy from Vermont into one of the country’s greatest ambassadors of Southeast Asian cooking.
The first thing I ever made, when I was pretty young—maybe 9 or 10—was hamburger glop. It’s basically ground beef with tomato sauce and macaroni all mixed together in a pan. We lived in rural Vermont, in an old farmhouse, and one of my chores was washing dishes. But I hated washing dishes, so instead I said I would cook. I made this for a long time. (Photo: kateiscooking.blogspot.com)
Chicken and dumplings
My friend Chris Ward moved from Alabama to Vermont, and his mom and grandmother were fantastic Southern cooks. They were a big family and I’d eat dinner over at their house four nights a week. Andy’s mom made chicken and dumplings that were just fantastic. I had never encountered anything like that before, and I shoveled them down as a voracious teenager. I was happy eating there. (Photo: Nealy Dozier/The Kitchn)
My first restaurant job was in Vermont, as a dishwasher at a Swiss fondue restaurant up the street. For staff meal, they’d make a bunch of their cheese fondue and serve it in a little pot with stale bread. I ate so much of it back then, but I probably haven’t touched fondue in 20 years. (Photo: Food52)
Angel hair pasta with lobster sauce
I spent four years in Vail cooking and ski bumming. I was hired as a line cook and there was this one dish I had to make over and over again: an angel hair pasta with lobster sauce. I had to twirl the pasta just so on the fork to make an elliptical shape. The chef was intense and would yell if this wasn’t done with precision. It was the first time I was in a high-pressure environment where I had to cook at a high volume. (Photo: cooktimewithremmi.com)
Roasted meat in New Zealand
I traveled overseas for a number of years, cooking along the way. When I was in New Zealand, I had a job at a roast-meat buffet called Harrods, like the London store. All the blue hairs would come in and order a slice of beef, lamb, or pork with potatoes. Yesterday’s lamb shoulder that didn’t sell would get chopped up into lamb curry. I’d been working there for about six months when I stopped smelling meat and started smelling roasted animal. Cow freaked me out so much that I just couldn’t eat meat for a really long time after that. (Photo: primemeats.co.uk)
Green curry in Thailand
The first time I went to Southeast Asia, I was at a bus depot in Southern Thailand and ordered green curry with chicken. At that time, my experience with Thai food was like everyone else’s and I ordered what a Westerner would. Southern Thailand was known for its fiery food, but I had no idea. This was Thailand in the ’80s, so there weren’t a ton of American tourists yet. I started eating the green curry and it was the spiciest thing I’d ever had. It was delicious. It wasn’t thick and goopy coconut milk, but more like soup and herbaceous, with the chicken cooked nicely on the bone. I was in a heat coma and I kept ordering Coke. (Photo: Penny De Los Santos/Saveur)
Kaeng het thawp
I went to Thailand again in 1992, to see my friend Chris in Chiang Mai, and this is the trip that changed my life. We went to a restaurant and had kaeng het thawp, a wild, puffed, seasonal mushroom dish. It was herbaceous, salty, bitter, and crunchy. There were no signs of the coconut cream or limes you normally associate with Thai cuisine, yet here was a folkloric, old Northern Thai dish. It made me understand that Thailand has a regional, seasonal, local cuisine, and essentially turned me on to cooking Thai food. (Photo courtesy Pok Pok)
I love Yucatán food. I went down there a lot between 1993 and 1997, and I was really taken with the pork loin rubbed with achiote, typically served with pickled red onions, black beans, and habanero salsa. It’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had and it made me interested in exploring the food of the Yucatán. Fortunately, most of my PDX crew consists of Mayan guys and girls, and they make it frequently for lunch. (Photo: Epicurious)
In 1997, I was back in Thailand and made a minced pork laab with Chris’ father-in-law; his was nothing like the North American laab you think of when you go to a Thai restaurant—chicken with lime juice and mint. This was a dark, rich, complex spice mixture topped with fried shallots. There was a bit of pork blood in there and a pile of herbs and sticky rice. It was another dish unlike any I had had before, and I needed to learn how to make it. (Photo courtesy Pok Pok)
Bak Kut Teh
Another dish that is fascinating to me is bak kut teh, a pork-rib broth with garlic and pepper popular in Malaysia. You drink it in the morning and it has a sauce of black soy and chiles. It’s a simple dish, but fascinating because of its spice mixture. There are many different versions and I’ve been obsessed with it, seeking it out in various parts of Southeast Asia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)