"The thing we like to do at Pok Pok is give you a bunch of instructions to go with your food," our server tells us in a kind of jubilant but also apologetic manner, as he plunks down various ramekins and saucers and condiment caddies. He opines that it would be better if we elect one person in our party to administer the flavor enhancements to the dishes on the table, to grapple with the dried chili and fish sauce and chopped onion and sour mustard greens and pineapple mam nêm. "Otherwise it can get confusing."
He goes on to rapidly explain which thing should go where, what sauce and herb are appropriate for which dish, but also that we should spice things to our liking. We get a quick cultural and geographical lesson about the foods of Thailand, and then he asks if we'd like another cocktail. The simplicity of the question is a relief. We most certainly want another cocktail.
Pok Pok L.A. isn't an easy restaurant to think about or write about, in part because even eating there can feel difficult. Andy Ricker's legacy in America as a student and professor of Thai food has been justifiably lauded, both in Portland, Oregon, where he opened the original Pok Pok in 2005, and in New York, where he expanded a few years ago. The New York location received a Michelin star last year. For his Portland restaurant, Ricker won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Northwest, in 2011.
But the reception of Pok Pok L.A., which Ricker opened in October after months of delays, has been somewhat cooler. There are a variety of reasons for this, the most obvious being that we already have a thriving Thai food scene, one that's populated by Thai-run restaurants. We have plenty of Thai food that's meticulously true to its origins, as well as Thai chefs born and raised in Los Angeles, who have a point of view that's thrilling in its old-meets-new audacity. There's a sense among diners I've spoken to that Ricker is coming into our town and deigning to teach us — in a patient, patronizing tone — about Thai food when we've known about Thai food all along. As one reader wrote me, "It's like, 'OK, dude, we understand that Thai omelets are made differently. We've been eating them from Ruen Pair for years. We don't need a children's-level explainer on the menu."
I can relate to this frustration somewhat. But the educational element of Pok Pok, in the service and on the menus, while a little tiring, doesn't bother me. (Many of the dishes have explanatory footnotes that seem conversational and interesting when viewed without suspicion but could be pointed to as further evidence of over-explanation.) I've got plenty to learn, and while I don't always want dinner to be academic, in this context it feels sincere and friendly. That's less the case at Pok Pok Phat Thai, Ricker's noodle bar up the street, where you get a lecture from the guy taking your order about how this phat thai isn't like the pad thai you're used to because this is the way it's really done in Thailand. I suppose it's all in the tone — some of Ricker's employees know how to deliver food with a side of friendly schooling, others do not.
But what about the food, the drinks, the room, the efficiency of the service — the things by which we usually judge a restaurant? Those things, it turns out, are mostly pretty great, which brings us again to the difficulty of thinking and writing about Pok Pok. Is it possible, in today's hyper-scrutinized food world, to consider the winning details of a restaurant like Pok Pok and ignore its cultural context? Probably not. Cultural context is everything. Even (especially) Andy Ricker would admit that.
But still. The details are important, too.
Pok Pok is a giant restaurant, spread out over two floors in Mandarin Plaza in Chinatown. The tables covered in bright oilcloth, the multicolored string lighting and the red vinyl–upholstered chairs all mimic the Pok Pok restaurants in Portland and New York, which in turn mimic restaurants in Thailand. Downstairs, with windows facing out onto the street, the room feels gloomily festive. Upstairs can feel more like a high school cafeteria, especially when the overhead lights are too bright, which they often are.
The menu is divided into five categories: drinking food, grilled things, one-plate meals, food eaten with rice as part of a shared meal, and sweet things. It's easy to order too much, and if you don't specify otherwise, every dish will arrive at the same time.
But most of the food — the food itself, not the idea of the food or the way it's delivered or any of the surrounding context — is immensely satisfying. There are little slices of boar collar, tender and piggy, rubbed with garlic and coriander root, glazed with soy and sugar and lightly caramelized over charcoal. There's the salty, spicy laap pet issan, a salad made of duck liver and skin, rife with lemongrass and fish sauce. Ricker's hoi thawt, a broken crepe with steamed fresh mussels, is a marvel of texture: The lacy, crispy edges give way to an eggy center that's almost creamy, the still-soft mussels adding to that creaminess but also providing a contrasting mineral tang.
There are plenty of dishes here that you really are unlikely to come across elsewhere, and those tend to be the most exciting. There's a smoky eggplant salad called yam makheua yao that's basically everything I ever wanted from an eggplant on one plate, the soft flesh imbued with the flavor of fire, topped with flecks of egg and prawn and crispy garlic. Catfish marinated in turmeric and sour rice, served over vermicelli with fistfuls of dill, is fantastic in part because it makes use of catfish's famously muddy flavor rather than trying to mask it. Paired with the brightness of the herbs and the funk of pineapple mam nêm (a fermented anchovy sauce — go ahead and dump the whole ramekin on), this too is a study in delicious contrasts.
It's the more common dishes that occasionally disappoint, or seem lacking in comparison to other versions in town. I wished there was more funk to the papaya salad — more stink, in fact. The khao soi comes in a form so mellow its fresh coconut milk broth is barely recognizable as curry — you're supposed to punch it up yourself, to your own liking.
This is where the misunderstanding arises, because the story this food tells is of a man who is incredibly respectful, who is genuine in his dedication to the flavors and customs of a culture not his own. While I understand the hackles that Ricker has raised among L.A. diners, I think we've misread him, misinterpreted the message, which is simply a chef scrupulously documenting and re-creating a cuisine that he loves. In fact, it's his very dedication to these things that sometimes causes consternation. If you buy khao soi on the street in Chiang Mai, chances are you will be given a bowl of something mild-bordering-on-bland and be expected to season it to your liking with an array of condiments. But when you're paying $16.25 for it in a restaurant in Los Angeles, do you see the practice as noble dedication to authenticity? Or do you just want a dish that tastes good from the get-go, authenticity be damned?
Right or wrong, there's a sense that Pok Pok lacks hospitality, that the stern paternalistic voice on the FAQ page of the restaurant's website ("We do not make 'fusion' food here; everything has been researched, eaten and/or prepared in the country of its origin prior to being put on the Pok Pok menu") carries over to the dining experience. This is evidenced by the too-much-food-on-the-table issue (if you tell me, "That's how they do it in Thailand," I might scream), by the now-abandoned 5 percent service charge (tips were also expected) and the nonrefundable $20 deposit to make reservations. L.A. diners balked at both. They balked at the perceived overtone that we were supposed to feel lucky that Ricker and crew decided to bless us with this restaurant, that we should be deliriously thankful for its very existence.
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I mean, we probably should. A lot of the food at Pok Pok is really delicious. Is that what matters here? It depends, I suppose, on how much you allow your pride to get in the way of your taste buds.
POK POK L.A. | Three stars | 978 N. Broadway, Chinatown | (213) 613-1831 | pokpokla.com | Mon.-Thu., noon-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon-mid.; Sun., noon-9:30 p.m. | Plates $5-$29 | Full bar | Street and paid lot parking