What’s more important, that a restaurant’s authentic, or that it’s good? Francis Lam recently questioned the former facet in the NY Times, in an article titled Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes. He focused on white, U.S. born chefs like Rick Bayless, Alex Stupak and Andy Ricker who found food inspiration abroad. We met Ricker last year at All-Star Cochon, a pork-focused event in Las Vegas, and he prepared some of the day’s most memorable bites. Ultimately, if the world is indeed flat, as Thomas Friedman proposed, then it really shouldn’t matter who’s cooking what, should it? It’s also impossible to know a chef’s true motives. Ricker has been cooking in Thailand since 1994 and seems to have a passion for that country’s food, but even if he happened to be a profiteer – unlikely – then what? It didn’t much matter to us that Chiang Mai natives weren’t cooking our food when we were devouring five plates during dinner at Pok Pok Noi, a restaurant that features Andy Ricker’s greatest hits in a “small” setting. We were more concerned with the bold, spicy flavors.
Pok Pok Noi features photos of Thai street vendors on the walls. We sat at the counter, facing a wall of colorful drinking vinegars. 50% of their business is to-go. Their photo menu has only 12 officially menu options, plus blackboard specials, and streaming indie rock.
For #4: Khao Soi ($12.50), a mild noodle soup that’s probably the best known dish from Chiang Mai, Ricker incorporates juicy bone-in chicken, “secret curry past recipe,” house-pressed fresh coconut milk, slippery submerged noodles and a nest-like thatch of crunchy fried egg noodles. Part of the fun with this dish is the array of textures and flavors, and also the condiments, and we pretty much added the entire side dish, including tart pickled mustard greens, shallots, cilantro and spicy roasted chile paste, finishing with a squeeze of lime.
Ricker didn’t mute the types of flavors people would find in Thailand, and he was willing to stray from the former Siam when it made sense. For instance, one of his daytime cooks, Ike, contributed a recipe from his Vietnamese homeland, which naturally resulted in #7: Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings ($12.50). These were tremendous wings, marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep-fried and seasoned with garlic and more fish sauce, and served with pickled vegetables typical of banh mi: carrot and daikon. The flavor built with each bite, and so did the mess. It was easy to see why Ricker’s wing-only spinoff has become so popular in New York City.
The night’s most incendiary dish was #10: Hat Paa Naam Tok ($10), firm forest mushroom salad tossed with soy sauce, lime juice and chile powder. They dressed it with shallots, lemongrass, mint, and cilantro and finished with gritty toasted rice powder. There were moments that we had to step away from the plate, since these mushrooms packed so much heat.
#11: Sii Khrong Muu Yaang ($12) featured Carlton Farms baby back ribs marinated in whisky, soy, honey, ginger and Thai spices. They slow roasted the juicy, bone-in nubs until the coating became lacquered. The ribs came with two dipping sauces, one spicier than the other.
#12: Muu Paa Kham Waan ($12.50) featured boar collar meat rubbed with garlic, coriander root and black pepper, glazed with soy and sugar, grilled over charcoal and slathered with a slurry of chile, lime and garlic. The presentation foreshadowed devastation, with mustard greens served on ice to extinguish any fires that ignited in our mouths. However, the mushrooms proved to be more potent, and the boar may have spent a bit too much time on the grill.
We had to try a Som drinking vinegar and opted for tamarind soda, making sure to stir in order to integrate sweet-tart matter from the bottom of the glass.
The meal left a lingering chile burn in our mouths that we were happy to contend with, since it meant that Ricker didn’t pull many culinary punches. While walking back to our hotel, the conversation wasn’t about how good the Thai food was…for a white chef. It was about how good the Thai food was…period…except, of course, when that dish was Vietnamese.
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