Authenticity is a dangerous word to throw around. When the chef is not Thai and the reviewer also, not Thai, it seems fanciful to bill Pok Pok’s food ‘authentic Thai’. Most Thai dishes, as chef and owner Andy Ricker is keen to point out, have shapeshifted in tune with the arrival of migrants to Bangkok from China, India, Laos and beyond. They bring new ingredients, tastes, cooking techniques and perspectives, and the food adapts accordingly. Hell, Pok Pok even has Chinese and Vietnamese dishes on the menu. It bears repeating – authenticity is a dangerous word.
With that big Thai elephant in the room tamed, we can say from a position of fandom rather than authority that Pok Pok is up there with the best Thai food, scrap that, any food, we’ve had outside of Thailand, and better than some of the best we’ve had there too.
It’s that fricking good.
Andy Ricker cooks Thai food in a thoroughly researched and practiced style, and with the reverence it deserves. The chef has travelled and immersed himself extensively in the country and it shows. His intentions were simple – a desire to eat the food he had fallen in love with in Thailand, as opposed to the Westernised, luminous curries so often found in the States. Pok Pok (named after the onomatopoeic, rhythmic drum of the pestle and mortar) is his homage to the country’s wonderful, diverse cuisine. We’re so glad he came back.
Pok Pok is located close to Brooklyn’s waterfront and a short stroll from Brooklyn park. The restaurant is as unassuming as it comes from the outside and looks like any regular neighbourhood joint.
We stopped by for lunch and, owing to its no reservation policy and huge popularity, a queue had formed. There was palpable excitement as a miasma of lemongrass and spice engulfed the block. Once inside, there is a casual atmosphere full of good cheer, with large sharing tables staying true to the family style dining practiced by the Thais. Out back is a garden, with colourful plastic table cloths reminiscent of the food and beer places much beloved of Bangkok locals. On this particular day al fresco dining meant catching the New York summer sun at its sweetest, with a cursory check of google revealing it was hotter here than in Bangkok. Cold beers were ordered with haste (as if we needed an excuse).
When the complimentary peanuts arrived, fragrant with kaffir lime and hot with chili, the attention to detail boded very well indeed. With the desire to settle into a leisurely afternoon of ice cold beer, sunshine and sharing – both of anecdotes and dishes – we opted for a family style order, as per the instructions of both menu and waiter. This loosely means the ordering of a curry or soup or both, a salad, a nam phrik (a spicy dip), some vegetables and the most essential element, sticky rice. It’s the perfect way to luxuriate in the food and company. As most Thai food translates better at Bangkok room temperature, there is no onus on rushing. Quite the opposite, a laid back pace is positively encouraged.
After the obligatory ‘can you do spicy?’, we are steered toward a sour soup, fragrant and assertive, with fat, just cooked clams. It was superb, supremely spicy, on the edge of too much but not quite. As always, sticky rice soothed and smoothed out the rough edges, A Northern rendition of papaya salad, utilising the salt and crunch of both peanuts and baby shrimp, was as good a version as we’ve ever tried – again, hot enough to clear the pores and have the lips tingling, but in the best way possible. The Nahm Phrik sat proudly in the middle of a plate of cold and cleansing green vegetables, and with each scoop of depth and complexity made its case as the greatest dish the wider population are largely unaware of. It comes with a side of pork scratchings, for Christ’s sake! Then, if they hadn’t already, things got religious.
Some dishes stop you in your tracks. They bring you out in goosebumps. They cause you to meet your partner’s equally wide eyes and stutter for superlatives. Whilst preoccupied with all the other wonders on offer, our Kaeng Hung Leh sat patiently, cooling to the lukewarm at which it truly sings hallelujah. Chunks of pork belly and shoulder so tender and fatty, pickled ginger and garlic, and an alluring sweetness, Pok Pok’s rendition of this famous Chiang Mai / Burmese curry is the real deal. It’s one we’re still talking about. Also, it goes without saying that Pok Pok’s famous Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings are a must order. To finish a delicious dish of glutinous Mango Sticky Rice is obligatory.
There are ice-cold, craft beers on draught, and also some bottles on import from South East Asia, such as the ever reliable Beer Lao. If in abstinence, Thai tea serves the same purpose as the beers – delicious and soothing in equal measure.
Andy Ricker has carved himself a reputation as one of the finest cookers of Thai food outside of the country, and with good reason. His approach is meticulous and respectful, a style which stays as true to the original ingredients and cooking methods as he can. With magnificent results. Pok Pok puts Thai food on a pedestal – right where it belongs.
Address: 117 Columbia St, Brooklyn, NY 11231, USA
Image sources Pok Pok FB