A Visit with Andy Ricker of Pok Pok
November 9th, 2012 | Food, Home, Photos
Steven recently sat down with Andy Ricker, executive chef and owner of Pok Pok restaurants, at his latest venture on the Lower East Side, Pok Pok Phat Thai. Andy’s family of restaurants now spans two coasts, serving regional Thai cuisine with an emphasis on adventurous dishes that may be lesser known to American tastes. Andy spoke about his recent adventures in cooking, bicoastal living, and shared some drink recipes with us.
We tried to go to Pok Pok when we were in Portland but could never get a table, so we were super excited when you opened here. You’re living bicoastally between Portland and New York right now. How does that work out?
Right now I’m in New York more because the restaurants are newer and it’s more difficult here. It fluctuates but I’m here about ¾ of the time. I still need to go back to Portland because it’s the mothership. It’s the nerve center, where the manna flows from.
What do you enjoy most about each city?
I like to think one is the antidote for the other. Portland is laid back, and a great life, but it can be so mellow that sometimes you can lose the edge. New York is exciting, but it grinds you down. It’s difficult, which I like. There’s a lot of drive, ambition. It’s good to have that balance.
How did you get into Northern Thai food?
My process started by getting introduced to local food there by a friend and his Thai wife. Without that I’d never have gone into it. This was before internet so there weren’t really any resources other than guide books and what people would tell you. Thai people culturally are not disposed to bringing you to a place where they think you might not like the food, so you never get to try some of the really interesting dishes outside of what we know in America. The best food is not in a tourist area, and the menu is in Thai or doesn’t exist. I started cooking with friends of friends, asking questions, and spending a lot of time in markets until I had a vocabulary and index.
Can you tell us a bit about Northern Thai cuisine? What are some distinguishing characteristics?
There are four distinct regions of Thailand: North, Northeast, Central, and Southern. Ethnolinguistically, they’re entirely different. There are also indigenous people and immigrants. When people think of Thai food, they think of what they’ve had here, and sort of divorce the idea that there are regional differences. It becomes homogenous “Thai.” People often lump North and Northeast together but they’re very different. The Northern Thai have a very specific diet based on the terroir. It’s not near any ocean but there are lots of rivers and jungle. It can be cooler there, and there’s a lot more emphasis on pork, chicken, frogs – protein. In Chiang Mai, there’s the influence of the spice route. It’s spicy in that it has spices for flavoring, but it’s not really hot. There are also a lot of boiled dishes, curries, and they ferment things like fish, and fruit. One flavor profile that’s featured more is bitter. There is a dish called laap, that’s made with meat, fish, and poultry and served with herbs. There’s bitter, sour, and salty, but sweetness is not really a factor. Coconut milk is never used (that’s Southern).
Your restaurants focus on some more adventurous or lesser known (at least in the US) regional Thai dishes. What made you want to pursue these dishes, and now pad thai?
I’ve always wanted to do pad thai. It’s one of the most popular dishes, but the ones here are big gloopy mass of all kinds of weird shit. The original dish there is really delicious. Pork fat, no ketchup, no sriracha, and they use palm sugar. I think it’s really misunderstood here. In Thailand, if you want to have the best pad thai, you go to a place that only does pad thai. The best places are often tucked away in a little neighborhood.
You’ve lived and cooked all over the US, in Asia, and Australia. What’s a place you’d like to explore?
I’ve done a lot of traveling but there are certain places I’d love to go, like India and Eastern Europe. I find Southeast China – the Yunnan Province area – really interesting. Ethnically it’s not Han Chinese. There’s a group of people, the Tai, where the Thai language originated from. The food there is really fascinating. I want to go back there before the Chinese government homogenizes it.
How are Pok Pok Som drinking vinegars made and how are they meant to be consumed?
It’s essentially a shrub, fruit macerated in vinegar, mixed with sugar, water, and salt, then filtered. People have been drinking vinegar for millennia as a digestif. I found it years ago in an Asian market, brought it home and tried it out, and thought, “Damn, that’s good!” It’s a mix of sour and sweet, and it goes great with the food. We also use it for cocktails in all the restaurants, and some bars and restaurants are using it as well. PDT, Tertulia . It’s great for drinks because you get a mix of sweet, sour, and fruit that’s really concentrated.
You can take ½ to ¾ oz. of it, add 1 ½ oz. of booze, top with ice and fill with soda water. Tamarind goes best with bourbon or tequila. Pomegranate is the least vinegar forward and goes well with gin. Apple is a bit more aggressive so we use less, but it also goes well with gin. Honey pairs well with tequila. I’m really excited about the pineapple, which pairs well with rum. Raspberry goes well with everything, and you can boost all of them with citrus.
Do you have a favorite dish at any of your restaurants?
Not exactly, but laap is the dish that defines Northern Thai food for me. It’s a really fascinating dish.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not working?
In Portland, I go to Ha & VL, a Vietnamese noodle shop, for breakfast 4-5 times a week. They do two kinds of noodles, and it’s the best I’ve had here. In New York, there’s this hand pulled noodle shop called Limzhou. It’s a tiny place off East Broadway.
Many thanks to Andy! You can find out more about his restaurants here, and find Pok Pok Som drinking vinegars at our Chelsea shop.
David, our Creative Director, also tried making some of Andy’s recipes at home:This entry was posted on Friday, November 9th, 2012 at 9:54 am and is filed under Food, Home, Photos. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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