Pok Pok – Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

The culinary experience at the Thai restaurant Pok Pok is very authentic and is exemplified even in the water. A pandanus leaf is dropped in the glass, as is done often in Northern Thailand, giving it a toasted rice, vanilla and grassy essence. We were invited to Pok Pok to celebrate James Beard award-winning chef Andy Ricker, being honored as the Thai Culinary Ambassador by the Thailand Tourism Authority.

Photo by Jill Weinlein
Photo by Jill Weinlein

Ricker is a brilliant chef who made a name for himself in the United States for bringing true Southeast Asian and Thai pub and street food to the American palate.

As a teenager in Vermont, Ricker worked in restaurants as a dishwasher. In his 20s, he lived in Vail, Colorado and then traveled around the world learning about new sights, smells and cuisine. Thailand seduced him with its beauty, colors and flavors. Eventually at the age of 27, Ricker landed in Portland, Oregon and noticed there wasn’t much of an ethnic food scene in the late 1990s. As a painting contractor in Portland, he continued to revisit Thailand to study its food culture before raising enough money to open his first Pok Pok. He did all the renovations himself before introducing the city to his authentic Thai cuisine in 2004. It was different from any other restaurant in Portland, and the community embraced the new dishes and flavors.

Photo by Jill Weinlein
Photo by Jill Weinlein

With his success in Portland, he was nominated and won the James Beard Foundation Award: Best Chef, Northwest for Pok Pok. Later he opened a Pok Pok in New York City and earned a Michelin star, and now he has a Pok Pok in the Mandarin Plaza in downtown Los Angeles.

Ricker prepares Thai food just as they do in Thailand. The Los Angeles restaurant is similar in decor to his Portland location, with an Asian-funk 70s feel. The restaurant has two floors for dining. Downstairs the lighting is low, with multicolored string lights offering an array of red, green and blue hues throughout the room. Each table has a colorful oilcloth with red-vinyl banquette chairs. It’s a big restaurant with two floors of dining rooms.img_5693

The private dining room upstairs has a large bar with bartenders making fruity Mekong-whiskey cocktails. There was the tamarind whiskey sour made with lime juice, palm sugar and bourbon on the rocks. Servers paraded around the room with trays of small plates of fried cashews with sea salt, fresh Thai chiles and chopped green onions, and a super-pungent Northern Thai salad. The sour cured and spicy pork fried ribs served with peanuts, ginger and a small slice of cool cabbage was the tastiest dish. Of course Singha beer was on hand to quench the heat.

Once we sat down at communal tables, under very bright overhead lights, we started with a central Thai specialty papaya salad with Thai chiles creating a lot of heat, calling for more sips of Singha beer.

Plump sausages laced with herbs and doused with curry powder and aromatics were topped with khaep muu (Thai pork rinds) and steamed green and black crudités tied in knots to offer a coolness.

Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings are a signature dish at Pok Pok. Named after chef Ricker’s friend, Ich Truong, the wings can be ordered spicy. (photo by Jill Weinlein)
Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings are a signature dish at Pok Pok. Named after chef Ricker’s friend, Ich Truong, the wings can be ordered spicy. (photo by Jill Weinlein)

Plates of Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings were delivered. Ricker’s long-time friend and Pok Pok Portland employee, Ich (Ike) Truong, shared this recipe that Ricker enhanced. Biting into a crunchy, deep-fried wing there is a sweetness, combined with a saltiness that is an extraordinary pleasing flavor profile. It’s unlike anything I have ever tasted.

Most of the food here is meant to be eaten family-style with everyone sharing the dishes on the table. Bowls of authentic sticky rice, Jasmine rice and coconut rice help cut the heat, as does more beer.img_5674

Another authentic tasting chicken dish is Mary’s roasted natural chicken stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, pepper and cilantro. It’s served with a sweet, spicy and sour tamarind dipping sauce.

From the Chiang Mai area is a herb salad of delightful vegetables and nuts dressed with a mild coconut milk. Most vegetarian dishes can also be made vegan, such as the coconut milk enhanced rice vermicelli topped with a curry of aromatics, chiles and king oyster mushrooms.

For dessert, we had bowls of khanom pang ai tiim, a coconut-jackfruit ice cream served on a sweet bun with peanuts, sweet sticky rice, condensed milk and chocolate syrup. Other desserts include a whiskey soda float made with homemade bourbon ice cream and cola float with a amarena cherry on top.fullsizerender-450

For those who would like to replicate many of the dishes at home, Chef Ricker has published his first cookbook – “Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand,” available to purchase on your way out.

Pop Pok is open for dinner at 6 p.m. weekdays. On Saturday and Sunday lunch is served starting at 12 to 3 p.m. and then dinner at 5 p.m. $$ 978 N. Broadway (213)613-1831.

This article was published in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News on November 10, 2016.

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