My conversation with Andy Ricker, chef/owner of Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, started out as dry and formal as you would expect from two people who had never before talked. I can’t recall precisely at which point things started to change, but change they did. And next thing I knew, jokes were exchanged and giggles were shared. In fact, half way into the dialogue, I’d kind of forgotten this was the man at whom I’d mentally blown a raspberry multiple times on account of the offense he didn’t know – he couldn’t have known – he’d committed.
It all started on a cold, depressing Monday morning a few years ago. After a long night of working on a project, my friend A and I sat in a corner in the library, mentally spent, fantasizing about what we would do if we could get out of there alive – kind of like how it was with Bubba and Forrest in Vietnam. A wanted to take over her family’s orchard and make fruit wines; I wanted to open the first Thai-style suan ahan (สวนอาหาร, literally “food garden”) in the US.
It was pure fantasy, of course, and we knew it. A can’t even properly juice an orange let alone make wine; I don’t possess half a smidgen of what it takes to cook in or run a restaurant. Then again, that’s precisely why it’s called dreaming and not planning.
I told A my suan ahan would be a place where utterly delicious food – just like what I had growing up in Bangkok – is served; kai yang would be one of its flagship dishes; the restaurant would have both an open space where people could sit all day eating and drinking as well as an air-conditioned area for those who prefer it; everything would be simple and straightforward. I even thought of specifics like how to-go food would be packaged, how to-go drinks would be packaged, and how there would be a mosquito coil under each table every night just like it is in Thailand (even in the absence of mosquitoes). When you walk in, you’d smell chickens roasting over fragrant mangrove wood charcoal …
I was waxing poetic about my dream restaurant for a while until A interrupted, “You know, there already is a place up in Portland that’s kind of like that.”
If we were in a movie, this would be where a record scratching sound effect is inserted.
Crestfallen, I frantically googled Pok Pok and Andy Ricker. For every single great thing I found out about the place and the guy who runs it, a mental raspberry was blown in his general direction by the petulant and envious 12-year-old in me. Dude stole my restaurant idea even before it was conceived in my mind – how dare he. And to make matters worse, he had the gall to turn the restaurant into something even better than what I had in my head.
Rotisserie grills shipped directly from Thailand. Clay charcoal burners just like what you’d see over there. Mortars. Pestles. Som Tam made to order. Perfect, perfect sampling of dishes from different regions. In various interviews, he has also shown an awareness of seemingly unimportant things such as the differences between the types of garlic and lime you find in Thailand and those found in North America, how cilantro is more tender in Thailand because it’s harvested early, etc.
Though still harrumphing at that point, I began to like the guy.
Then the linguist in me decided to check out Pok Pok’s online contents, including the menus, all the while hoping they would justify my growing admiration for Ricker and his team.
You see, this is where you can’t hide stuff. There’s a lot – a lot – you can tell about someone’s knowledge of Thai culture and cuisine in the way they describe various dishes. This is also where someone’s claim of literacy in the Thai language comes under the harshest light possible. In oral communication which is much more relaxed, one can easily get oneself understood with less-than-perfect pronunciation and grammar. But when it comes to the Romanization of Thai words, every single letter shows whether or not the person can read and write Thai.
While many Thai restaurants overseas (run by Thai expats) fail this test, Pok Pok and its sister restaurants have passed with flying colors. Ricker’s spoken Thai, according to his own admission, is rudimentary at best and he still has a long way to go when it comes to reading. But he has shown us that he’s the kind of person who knows enough 1. to realize that he might not know everything, 2. to seek help from those who do know, and 3. to be able to verify the expertise of those from whom he seeks help. (You would think this attitude is common. It is not.)
What does language competency have to do with cooking or running a restaurant? Well, not much, really. You can cook great Thai food without being Thai or knowing a word of Thai. But when someone shows that they care enough to do things well down to the most minute details – even those that are sure to escape most eyes – it makes it easy for you to believe that they’re also just as meticulous in the kitchen.
It makes it easy for me to believe when Ricker told me that he had his sen yai (flat rice noodles) made especially by someone in the area who makes them the way they do in Thailand or that he used fresh limes even during the times they’re crazy expensive, he wasn’t making those things up.
And this attention to detail might have indirectly led to the criticism from some, especially those who grew up in or spent time in Thailand, who perceive Pok Pok as being expensive for a restaurant that serves ordinary Thai street food sold in the motherland at 1/10th of the price. Ricker quickly rebutted, “I’ve never said we serve Thai street food.” And if you ask me, he’s right. “This kind of criticism comes from those who have never spent a day running a restaurant,” said Ricker. “They have no idea how much it costs to do what we do on a daily basis.”
To add my two satangs, it’s a well-known fact that even in Thailand, you get what you pay for; great foods are almost always more expensive than mediocre foods. Yet, I know all too well the sentiment that has led to such criticism. Every time I take visiting Thai friends or relatives to a Thai restaurant in the US, a sticker shock is guaranteed. There would always be comments about how this or that costs this much and that much back home and how it feels like a rip-off to pay such high prices for what are considered cheap food.
And I’d find myself burdened with the task of reminding them that the US is not Thailand — a fact often falsely assumed to be obvious to all.
Discovering Thai cuisine while backpacking around the country in 1987, Ricker has come a long way in his knowledge of Thailand and her cuisine; his understanding of Thai food, in my opinion, is greater than that of many who have spent their whole lives living in the kingdom. Growing up in Philadelphia with a mother who wasn’t afraid to experiment with different foods and cuisines must have made for a good foundation for his future career.
“I didn’t grow up eating Hamburger Helper,” Ricker said. Even so his first encounter with Thai food was intense.
“It was rice with Kaeng Khiao Wan at a bus station in Hat Yai,” he recounted the story of his first Thai meal to me. Of all the places he could have had his first meal and of all the dishes he could have chosen, Ricker went for a plate of rice with green curry in Hat Yai1, sweating profusely and begging for more rice and coca-cola. This is when the sadistic part of me chuckled with glee.
“A lot of people think that ‘real’ Thai food has to be super-duper hot,” said Ricker. “Or they think it has to involve stuff like dog meat, worms, or bugs.” This erroneous belief, according to the chef, has led to a perception of Thai food as a challenge — a macho competitive sport of sorts. “But it’s not about how weird or how extreme it is,” he added. “It’s about how great it is.”
Clichéd as it may seem, the truth is that great Thai food is for the most part about knowing how to employ the different flavors of local produce. To cook Thai food well, said Ricker, you need to taste your raw elements and understand what you work with.
The story of Pok Pok, the meaning of its name, Andy Ricker’s bio, and the many accolades which he and the restaurant have received since Pok Pok’s inception in 2005 (including Ricker’s most recent win at the James Beard Foundation Awards 2011), can be found both on the restaurant’s website and in the various interviews Ricker has done over the years. Therefore, I won’t repeat any of those things here.
But the question that people to whom I’d mentioned the plan to write this post have asked is: what about the food?
Though I have every intention to visit Pok Pok, due to my crazy travels these past several months, I’ve never had a chance to do so yet. (I did, however, send two ‘spies’ to the restaurant and they thought highly of it.) Then again, this is not a restaurant review. Also, if the recipe featured here is any indication, Ricker’s understanding and interpretation of Thai regional dishes can’t be far off the mark. His Tom Saep2 which is on the menu at Whiskey Soda Lounge, a sister restaurant of Pok Pok where kap klaem (drinking food) is served, is by far one the best versions I’ve ever had. And I’ve had quite a few.
Tom Saep is one of those dishes that are difficult to clearly define. The most common designation is “Northeastern Tom Yam” which, for some reason, I’m hesitant to adopt. As an understanding aid, it works pretty well; delve more deeply into the cultural implications of it and things get confusing.
There are also many variations out there. Some call for toasted rice powder; some use dried chilies instead of fresh; some – though this is rare – is soured with tamarind pulp as opposed to fresh lime juice. But what they all have in common is the infusion of the broth with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal. Also, even though pork rib Tom Saep seems to be all the rage in Bangkok these past few years, by far the most prevalent and the most traditional variation is made with beef and beef offal.
The recipe for Tom Saep which Ricker is sharing with you here is the same one he uses to make the version served at one of his restaurants, Whiskey Soda Lounge. What I love about Ricker’s version is that he employs the garlic-peppercorn-cilantro root paste (which is often used as part of a marinade). With the fresh chilies and the paste together in the broth, the scintillating heat hits the tip of your tongue and the warm, mellow heat hits the back of your throat at the same time.
Based on my experience, the success of this recipe depends on the following:
Other than these, this recipe is child’s play.
Tom Saep Nuea (ต้มแซบเนื้อ) as Served at Whiskey Soda Lounge
Recipe courtesy of Chef Andy Ricker, Pok Pok Restaurant
4 ounces raw beef chuck (chuck steak), sliced thinly against the grain
2 ounces of sliced and poached beef offal (liver, heart, stomach, etc.)
2 tablespoons sliced beef tendon which has been boiled until tender
12 fluid ounces beef stock
4-8 Thai bird’s eye chilies, crushed and halved lengthwise on the diagonal (more or less depending on heat tolerance)
3-5 thin slices fresh galangal
6 1/4-inch bias slices of fresh lemongrass
6-8 kaffir lime leaves, torn
1 tablespoon cilantro root-salt-garlic-black pepper paste (pound 1/2 cup chopped cilantro roots, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 2 tablespoons fresh garlic, and 2 teaspoons kosher salt into a paste in a granite mortar and pestle)
1 fluid ounce fresh lime juice
1 fluid ounce fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon sawtooth coriander (culantro), julienned
1 tablespoon green onions, finely chopped
Leaves from one stalk of fresh Thai basil
1 Southern cuisine can at times be very spicy even for the Thai standard. Hat Yai is a city in the South of Thailand.
2 Also spelled Tom Sap or Tom Saeb. Some restaurants, for reasons that escape me, spell it, Tom Zap, Tom Zabb, Tom Sabb. It should be noted that the Z sound doesn’t exist in the Thai language, and the reduplication of the final letter in the Thai-English transliteration is not a legitimate practice.