Even if you’d never heard of Pok Pok, the James Beard Award–winning Thai restaurant that first opened in Portland a decade ago, or its incredibly influential and knowledgeable chef, Andy Ricker, a mere glimpse of Pok Pok’s new location inside Chinatown’s Mandarin Plaza should be enough to warrant heart palpitations. Immediately obvious: It’s massive. Spanning two stories and featuring more than 200 seats, the restaurant is on equal scale with Chinatown’s massive Cantonese banquet halls, complete with a trellis-shaded outdoor patio, two full bars and strings upon strings of cheery, multicolored lights. With its hodgepodge of quirky Thai signage and jangly Thai-pop soundtrack, Pok Pok L.A. rollicks with the energy of a Bangkok shopping mall circa 1975.
If you happen to be somewhat familiar with Ricker’s cooking — either from trips to Portland or New York Cita, or via Pok Pok Phat Thai, his fast-casual noodle joint located inside another Chinatown shopping mall — it's easy to follow the drill: Throw down on the famous fish sauce–glazed chicken wings and a tamarind whiskey sour, a combo that immediately leaps to the short list of the city’s best bar food–and-booze couplings. The rest of the menu, which features dishes from across Thailand and its neighboring regions, is lengthy and somewhat verbose, which might intimidate those diners unfamiliar with Southeast Asian food but entice those who want to advance beyond pad Thai and papaya salad.
On a recent visit, dishes like grilled satay showed off Ricker’s trademark attention to detail. Little nubs of charred pork fat were nestled up against skewered chicken to keep the meat moist, and the accompanying peanut sauce sang with subtle spice and richness in a way the packaged gloop found at lesser Thai joints never does. Kaeng awm neua, a murky soup swimming with stewed beef shin and galangal (Thai ginger), was powerful enough to clear sinuses but nuanced enough to contrast beautifully with another dish called yam samun phrai, a vibrant herb salad dressed with mildly sweet coconut milk dressing. The sole letdown was the chopped pork laap, which was tasty if a little bland and one-note in comparison.
On Pok Pok's menu, liner notes often are included to provide context (under chicken satay: “Yes, bread really is the traditional accompaniment in Thailand ” or under an affogato-esque dessert: “a complete fabrication. based on a typical Vietnamese breakfast snack”). These footnote explainers might come off as extraneous to some L.A. diners, not because we’re more educated about Thai food per se but because we’ve become unfazed by oddball fusion cuisine and the cultural confusion it often entails.
As home to the most prolific Thai restaurant scene in America, the addition of Pok Pok to Los Angeles isn’t as immediately game-changing as it would be for other cities. Then again, the question “Does L.A. need Pok Pok?” is a silly one. It's hardly what will come to mind when you're polishing off Singha beer slushies and charcoal-grilled boar collar.
Is more good Thai food ever a bad thing? Of course not.
Pok Pok L.A.., 978 N. Broadway, Chinatown, (213) 613-1831, pokpokla.com