When American chef Andy Ricker opened Pok Pok in Portland’s Southeast Division neighbourhood in 2005, he viewed the restaurant as a means to an end.
“When I opened, it honestly was like, ‘fuck, I hope this works so I can leave the country on a whim to go travelling through Thailand six months of the year’,” says Ricker.
Those modest ambitions were soon abandoned. In a short space of time, this homey restaurant and its menu of predominantly Northern Thai street food – the specialties of the house were gai yang (Isaan-style charcoal-roasted chicken), som tum (papaya salad) and Vietnamese-style chicken wings – won over Portlanders and helped put Ricker on the American food map. In the 15 years since, both Ricker and Pok Pok have amassed an impressive CV that includes being named Portland restaurant of the year, two James Beard Foundation awards, a Munchies documentary, three cookbooks and a mini restaurant empire that included outposts in New York and Los Angeles as well as multiple Portland venues.
Despite its popularity, Pok Pok – like many in the food game – was caught in a perfect storm caused by a fast-changing restaurant landscape as well as the global Covid-19 pandemic. After battling through a challenging 2020, Ricker made the decision to wind up the Pok Pok story, breaking the news on social media this weekend. Fittingly, he made this announcement during Loi Krathong, a Thai festival in which people symbolically float decorated baskets down a river to symbolise new beginnings.
Speaking from his home in Chiang Mai where he lives with his wife Kung and their cats, Ricker is upbeat about the future and has zero interest in letting the Pok Pok situation get him down. (“I don’t feel bad for myself, put it that way”). Reflecting on the last 15 years, the proud “copycat” chef speaks frankly about Thai food, America’s dining scene and where the two – as well as Pok Pok – intersected.
On The Early Days Of Division Street
Division Street has always been a commercial thoroughfare. I moved to Southeast Division Street in 1995 and, by the time I opened Pok Pok, had lived there for over 10 years including, funnily enough, in the house right next door to Pok Pok. When I moved in, it wasn’t the canyon of four-storey buildings that it is today. There were maybe a couple of bars, a pie shop, a dessert shop, a bunch of parking lots, a group home or two and a few car repair shops. But really it was primarily residential. There was a place that just opened up called Lauro which was run by David Machado who’s an old-school Portland chef with a background in hotels. A really smart guy. He was doing Mediterranean, heavily Portuguese-influenced food in the space that’s now Ava Gene’s. Lauro was kind of the harbinger of what was going to come.
On The Inspiration For Pok Pok
Living in New York in 2003 was a catalyst for opening Pok Pok. There were these cool restaurants on the Lower East Side including this spot where this dude had opened a cafe. He found a space, decorated it with hardie board or something from Home Depot that they bent on the ceiling and painted white, and was doing really good, simple and inexpensive food. And I was like, “this place is fucking cool”. My attitude towards restaurants synchronised with my attitudes about music: that sort of semi-punk rock but with pleasing pop influences sort-of-thing. I looked at what it cost to open a restaurant in New York and said, no way, I can’t do it here. But I owned this house in Portland. If I went back and remodelled it and added a couple of bedrooms and increased the value and sold it, I’d have the money to open a restaurant.
On Going Back to New York
I loved the vibe in New York when we were about to open there [in 2011]. Danny Bowien was getting ready to move there and open Mission Chinese Food at the exact same time that I was working on Pok Pok. We became friends early on and were both approaching it from the same way: we’re going to make killer food but we don’t have any money, so we’ve gotta make this fucking happen somehow. It was the dudes from Bunker Vietnamese opening in this weird fucking fish market in the middle of nowhere in Queens. We were in this weird fucking neighbourhood in Sunset Park making weird northern Thai food and Danny was on the Lower East Side in an illegal subterranean space making crazy fake Chinese food. It was a really cool time, but I don’t know if it’s possible to do that anymore in New York. I hope somebody thinks it is but at this point, I don’t know.
On Being An Expert On Thai Food
I’m proud of the fact that we – Pok Pok wasn’t just me – were able to contribute to the conversation on Thai food. Beyond that, I don’t want to take any kind of credit. All I was doing that whole time was saying, “hey, here’s the shit I saw over there that I thought was fucking awesome and you should try it too”. That’s really it. That was my plan from the get-go and to be able to do that was enough for me. I’m no more a fucking expert than the person down the street from me here in Chiang Mai. I like it a lot, but I’ve said it from the beginning: I’m a student. I’m still learning new shit every day. I went and had laap the other day and there was something on the plate I’d never seen before: flower from the maleet mai tree. I’d only ever seen the tree’s pods, but apparently steamed maleet mai flower is something that people eat with laap and nahm prik all the time: I just never encountered it. And that was two weeks ago and I’ve been coming here for 30 years. If you want to talk to an expert about Thai food, you call Prin Ponsulk [former head chef at Nahm, Bangkok], or you talk to Austin Bush, who’s some sort of food savant. He’s lived here for 20 years and he’s got an almost photographic memory.
On Changes To Restaurant Culture
There are so many more restaurants now than there were before. In Portland, we went from having a handful of good restaurants and a bunch of regular spots to having a thousand good restaurants. Then all the okay places had to be good. If you opened a corner pub, you had to have a killer food program or no one’s going to go. Even the local pub would have this insane hamburger, hand-cut fries and house charcuterie. We went from this place where there were some really great restaurants coming up to every six-block neighbourhood having eight good restaurants There were way more restaurants in Portland than the city could support, even pre-Covid.
We went from being able to hire people to it being basically impossible to find people to work. Finding people just to have a full crew at any given time became really, really problematic. I alluded to this in that post and said there’s a list of things that made it difficult to run restaurants pre-Covid. That was number one. We were constantly short-staffed. We had this constant insane battle just to maintain being open and serve food rather than trying to up our game. And everybody was working one or two pay grades above their abilities, that’s just the way it was. If you found someone that had potential, you didn’t say, “in a year, you’re going to be a manager, you’re a manager, now.”
On Changes To Restaurant Culture (The Big One)
The biggest change, though, was the media and social media. In 2005, I didn’t have any idea that there was such a thing as a food blogger until some dude showed up at the shack, ordered some food and wrote something. Somebody I knew who was more clued-in than me said, “hey they’re writing about you on the internet”. And I was like, “Huh? What the fuck is this?” Then food TV came along and that really changed the game in a lot of ways. It was no longer just about how good the food and service was: now it was about the visuals. The rise of Yelp and TripAdvisor was another huge difference in the way the restaurant world operated. The rise of Instagramming – people taking pictures of their food and only going to trendy spots – that was another huge difference. The landscape, from when I was a 22-year-old line cook to now, is like we flew to fucking Mars. We went from being earthbound to being intergalactic space travellers.
On Key Events In Pok Pok’s History
Karen Brooks from The Oregonian naming us restaurant of the year [in 2007] was the big one. That was good for business for basically two to three years and we were busy as fuck. The next big thing that happened was one of the big food rags – Gourmet magazine, I think – doing this massive five-page spread on us. There were recipes, pictures of the food, they hired a massive crane for the photography. That was huge. Then some dude from the New York Times calls me and wants to talk about Pok Pok. It was probably right after we got restaurant of the year that this sort of stuff started happening. To be honest, I don’t know the exact timeline of events because I had my head stuffed so far up my ass running the restaurant. The other huge milestone was opening in New York and getting a two-star review in the New York Times. That was fucking massive. I figured if we got lucky, we’d get one star. But Pete Wells giving us two stars – and like a good two-star review? I was shocked.
On The Future
Will Pok Pok continue? Yeah. I just did a brunch [at Four Seasons Chiang Mai] today and I did a pop-up at Asai Bangkok Chinatown last month. Will I continue in the culinary field? Yes. Will I open a Pok Pok restaurant in Thailand? No, or at least not as it existed. I spent my entire career replicating something that exists for a new audience in a different part of the world. If I were to open Pok Pok here, it just wouldn’t make any sense. I’d be in direct competition with the places that exist already. Go to Charoen Suan Aek: they’re going to do a better job than I can do anyway. All I’ve ever done is try to do as good as they do, only without using MSG. That would be my only angle: Northern Thai food – no MSG.
On Pok Pok’s Legacy
I don’t know if Pok Pok would be as relevant opening today as it was 15 years ago, just because there’s so much more out there. I know that Pok Pok was a catalyst in a certain way. A lot of people have said to me that I was the inspiration for them to do what they did, including some Thai people. Given everything that’s happened in the whole food space, it’s likely that somebody would have done something like Pok Pok and Night + Market would exist and James Syhabout would have done Hawker Fare and on and on and on. There’s a lot of places in America now that do, more or less, what Pok Pok does in their way. I don’t know how relevant we are anymore. At this point, the best thing I can hope for is that we maintain our quality and hospitality. We’re a place that people go because it’s comfortable and people like it. We’re no longer an innovative place. We’re no longer a sparkplug for Thai cuisine in America. We’re almost, certainly when it comes to food media, not exciting anymore to people. And frankly, I’m glad about that. The whole social media merry ground, I hate it. I participate in it because I have to and because that’s how you maintain your brand these days. I think this is the appropriate time to bail, whether Covid came and put the nail in the coffin or not. Whether the economic realities of doing business would have doomed us in the next few years anyway. Or whether I was able to whittle everything back and just do Pok Pok on Division Street and make it an institution where you get the same dishes every time you go.
I want to point one thing out: I’m gonna be fine. I’m okay. I’ve been smart with how I’ve lived my life. When there was money to be made, I didn’t go out and buy Maseratis and shit. I saved and we slowly invested in land here in Chiang Mai which is not expensive. But I tell you who’s fucked out of all this: people like this extended family from the Yucatan that I employ who have children who are in school in America. Who are of questionable legal status. Who can’t go to the government for help. Who are basically so fucked in this situation. One of my guys even got picked up by ICE pre-Covid. He was loading his kids into a minivan to take them to school and these ICE guys showed up and bundled him away. That kind of shit is. Fucked. Up. To the degree that I can’t even begin to say. Restaurants, at the end of the day, are just fucking restaurants. The world is dealing with things that are far more tragic and far more fucking important than the closing of a fucking restaurant. I’m in a lot better place than people who are, number one, immigrants; people who are LGBTQ; people of colour; people who have been economically downtrodden by the fucking system we live in in the western world for time immemorial. That’s what’s important right now.
Read Andy Ricker’s Guide To Eating and Drinking in Chiang Mai, Thailand.