Every time the New York Times Dining section reviews a restaurant, Pete Wells attends the restaurant three times. No more, no less.
Visit 1: The first time my boyfriend and I went to Pok Pok Ny, it was on the advice of the Wells’ 2012 list of his favorite restaurants in New York. We made our pilgrimage through the freezing February weather, taking the F train into Carroll Gardens then walking a mile to the Thai restaurant, a nondescript spot on the edge of a quiet residential neighborhood. As soon as we stepped inside, we were ushered across the street to the adjacent bar, the Whiskey Soda Lounge to order a drink while we waited for our table.
The bar, filled with haphazard multi-colored Christmas lights and video monitors playing Thai movies, felt like something directly out of Bangkok. We found a spot at the bar and ordered two Hunnys, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice with honey drinking vinegar, tequila, and lime. Thirty minutes, four Hunnys, and a contemplated tattoo later, we were called across the street to our table.
Pok Pok is a New York outpost of Andy Ricker’s Thai-inspired Portland restaurant. And while one would think that joining the New York cluster of Thai restaurants is the equivalent of restaurant suicide, Pok Pok has survived, serving the food of northern Thailand not usually found in the city. Rather than use Americanized classics like coconut soup, Ricker opts for grilled meat-centric dishes with fresh chiles and herbs.
By the time we sat down at a gingham-covered table in the back of the dining room, we were starving. Just short of saying “One of everything,” we ordered the legendary Fish Sauce Wings to start, with pork collar, duck salad, and Tiger beers coming shortly after. As a lover of spice, I persuaded my boyfriend to ignore the warning signs of “green chili,” “served spicy,” and “Thai chilis,” and order the authentic preparations.
The Fish Sauce Wings came first, doused with sugar and deep fried before being covered in caramelized Puh Quoc fish sauce and garlic. They were everything we had hoped for: spicy and incredibly flavorful with tons of roasted garlic. By the time we received our second course, we were drunk, laughing, and eager for the next dish. So eager that I premptively poured half of the pork shoulder sauce onto my order of sticky rice. This proved to be a Pok Pok Rookie Mistake.
To say the pork shoulder was spicy would be an understatement. To say my boyfriend and I caused a scene, fanning our tongues, jumping up and down with tears in our eyes, and staring mournfully at my poisoned rice would be more like it. But it was delicious. Like a masochist, I went in for each bite preparing myself for the pain, but needing more of the delicious meat.
Visit 2: Naturally, when given a two-hour wait time for Mission Chinese’s eight-course popup restaurant, my boyfriend and I decided that that was the perfect amount of time to head to Pok Pok and get a couple beers and fish-sauce wings. Thinking we could eat a plate of fish sauce wings immediately before an eight-course meal is another prime example of a Pok Pok Rookie Mistake.
Visit 3: No longer amateurs to the incredible spices and highly-alcoholic drinks at the Whiskey Soda Lounge, we returned this past weekend for Pok Pok Round 3. Walking into Pok Pok, we welcomed the two hour wait time (“No seats? No problem!”) and sauntered over to our bar stools at the Whiskey Soda Lounge. “Two Hunnys, please!” Branching out from “the usual,” we ordered a bowl of Plaa Lek Twat Krob, a bowl of deep-fried baby anchovies with sriracha sauce, and Huu Muu Thawt, five spice fried pig ears with black vinegar dipping sauce. Both were… crunchy? I can’t say that I loved them, but my boyfriend downed the little flounders in one fell swoop. Call me impressed.
Thoroughly liquored and fish-breathed, we took our seats at Pok Pok just over an hour later to order our beloved fish sauce wings and pork collar, with a side of milk.
The trick is to look at Pok Pok as a portmanteau establishment of incredible dishes and daring exploration. Just as important as the delicious food is a healthy sense of adventure. Just be sure to mind the chilis.