Chef Andy Ricker is loved for his authentic Thai recipes and loyalty to traditional ingredients. Following the success of his first street food shack in Portland, he opened two more hotspots, Whiskey Soda Lounge and Noi, and won the James Beard Best Chef of the Northwest award before heading east to dish sweet and spicy Thai to New York’s hippest. Here he shares some insight on Phat Thai culture, his soon to launch cookbook and some key ingredients that make his restaurants some of the hottest in town.
JL: Where does the name Pok Pok come from?
AR: It’s an onomatopœia. It’s the sound of a tussle hitting a mortar, specifically a wooden tussle hitting a clay mortar when you’re making papaya salads. Pok pok pok. So it has no real meaning. I was traveling on a day time express train coming from northeastern Thailand back to Bangkok. I was on the train with these guys who were workers and they starting talking to me and asked me what we were doing. I told them traveling around Thailand visting the north to eat. And they said, “Oh ya, do you like Thai food?” and I said, “Ya.” And they said, “Do you know how to cook Thai food?” I said, “Ya. Do you?” And they said “Ya!” and then they said, “Pok, pok, pok, pok.” and made the motion of using the tussle and were making that sound.
JL: How does the Phat Thai in New York compare to that in Thailand?
AR: This is a really delicate question for me. My opinion is that Thai restaurants in America are doing what they have to do to make a living and have adapted their taste over the years. It’s become kind of a genre unto itself. Now, can you find Thai food in Thailand that tastes like the Phat Thai in American? Absolutely. But it’s something that’s kind of a reversed engineered thing. The ideas flowed backwards, back to Thailand through tourists. But again, that’s just my opinion.
JL: Why did you change from wings to noodles at your Rivington location?
AR: It’s a pretty simple answer. One reason was logistics. Chickens wings are problematic to prep and produce. Here in New York we have a 900sqft restaurant that we do service out of but, also prep in for all of Pok Pok Thai and of Pok Pok Ping. So the logistics of it were just really really daunting. Second reason we did it was because I’ve been reveling about this idea for four years now because I’ve always thought it was a good concept. The way that Phai Thai is made and sold in Thailand is typically a stand alone vendor, either as a stall in a market, street side spot or, you know, a stand alone restaurant that just has Phat Thai. So it’s way easier to prep in this tiny 350sqft space, and now we can be open for lunch too, which is something we weren’t able to do before. It just made sense on a lot of different levels. Plus I love Phat Thai, I think it’s a great dish, but it’s rarely done old school style how it is done in Thailand.
JL: Are there challenges that come with sourcing your key ingredients?
AR: There are certain things that are really difficult to source. Some things you just can’t get in New York, and then there are things you can get here and not there. So we source a lot of stuff here and then play with the recipes until it ends up tasting the way it should in Thailand. The things I actually bring back with me are relegated to certain spices that you can’t get here at all, or you can’t get the quality that you get there.
JL: What is a favorite pantry ingredient?
AR: This Phat Thai ingredient phrik phon. It’s crushed chilis, like powder chili. The quality of chili is much higher and it’s got this really smokey tobacco-y flavor and we use that in the Phat Thai itself. It’s pretty precious so we only add a little bit for the flavor. I’ve tried my best to replicate it here and I haven’t been able to quite get it right. We’re working on it.
JL: I know that you used to take off to Thailand and cook for a few months each year. Do you still make a point to get over there regularly?
AR: I go several times a year. Recently, the longest I’ve been able to stay away is about six weeks. I was just in Thailand for five weeks working on my cookbook and that was a really concerted time of cooking, which was great.
JL: Tell us some fun things about your cookbook.
AR: It’s the northern Thai that excites me the most and I think it’s those dishes that are going to be the most interesting in the book. They’re not the easiest of all recipes to execute, but if you do exactly as we say you’ll end up with something that’s not only unusual to find in the United States, but it’s unusual to find in Thailand itself. You have to really be in the region to find it. And a good version of it is often not that easy to find either. So that’s the stuff that gets me excited.
JL: What is special about the Phat Thai places you go in Thailand to eat?
AR: It’s a wildly varying dish depending on where you are. The places I go to in Thailand have been around for generations where the way to cook Phat Thai is to use pork fat. That’s not done so much anymore because it’s so expensive. Now you can get mass produced vegetable oil, but the old days pork fat was the medium. So I go to these places and they are still doing it like that. There’s a certain thread that goes through Phat Thai, the constants, but people get creative with it. In Thailand they put food coloring in it so the noodles are pink. In northern Thailand they tend to use ground pork a lot, which is something we do at Pok Pok. Prawns are usually the only other real substitute for protein and the chicken Phat Thai doesnt really exist in these places. You see it, but typically in tourist areas, where backpackers congregate, because they know that foreigners love chicken.
JL: What cities culinary cultures standout to you?
AR: I just got back from Charleston, South Carolina and what Sean Brock is doing there at Husk and McCradys…. Basically, I haven’t had anything better to eat all year. I think Austin, Texas has got some cool stuff going on. I love Austin. There are places that I’m really interested in going to not because they have a cutting edge scene but because I have my suspicions. I’m really interested in going to Louisiana, not because of New Orleans necessarily, but because there is a large Vietnamsese population. Very large. They’ve been there for awhile and it’s a tropical climate, more or less, and I know there’s got to be some shit going down there. People growing stuff, there’s gotta be markets going on, there’s gotta be stuff happening, I just haven’t heard anything about it yet. That’s maybe my next culinary expedition to see what’s going on down there. I really love to going to places that we have here in New York, like I went to Per Se the other day for the first time and it was fantastic! Don’t get me wrong, I really love eating good food, but what I really enjoy is simply prepared food with really good ingredients. Of course I have to mention Portland because Portland is kind of a leader on that one but, that’s just what I’m drawn towards. What I had in Charleston, even at Sean’s place, it was a five minute thing but the food had soul. It really had soul and it was based on culinary tradition of the area and that’s what I love about Thai food too. It’s very seasonal. Very local. Very diverse, and that’s the kind of thing I’m mostly interested in.