Pushing the Pok Pok Cart

checking the list

Back in January, I had the good fortune to meet a couple of fellow food hounds who happened to be passing through Chiang Mai as I was there. Chef and cookbook author Susan Loomis, on a research trip for her latest tasty project, introduced me to Andy Ricker, owner of Portland’s Pok Pok. We chatted over bowls of spicy noodles, and thus a connection was born.

As was an idea. Andy and I got to talking about the difficulties (and delights) of shopping for a Southeast Asian street food restaurant in the not-so-sweltering Northwest. How did Ricker win votes for Portland’s restaurant of the year? How does he maintain that authentic street flavor? I was curious.

empty cart

So several weeks later, we went shopping on his turf.

carting

I spent the better portion of a day following Andy around Portland’s east side as he dug into crates of new mangoes and sniffed his way through bins of chives and Chinese celery. It’s no easy task, trying to duplicate dishes from half a world away. But Ricker has a highly refined nose for precisely the right flavors—a characteristic that has evolved through many years of Thailand travels.

fresh veggies

You can read the rest of the story here on the Gourmet site. If you’re really itching for a bite, sign up for one of Ricker’s Thailand tours. Or, just sample his dishes at Pok Pok.

bbq game hen

The Pok Pok Special: roasted game hen, green papaya salad, sticky rice, dipping sauce

eating soup

Andy Ricker eating Pok Pok’s Yunnan-style Lamb Noodle Soup

custard

Khao Niaw Dam Sankyaha: coconut-palm sugar custard scented with pandanus, served over black sticky rice with coconut cream

restaurant flower

Flower in the Pok Pok window

Buddha

Buddha in the truck

down the aisle

Andy Ricker, down the aisle

11 thoughts on “Pushing the Pok Pok Cart

  1. Karen,
    Sounds great, we are blessed with an Asian supermarket over here and I should use it a lot more than I do. I love the fact you can get your hands on the fabulous Thai vegetables and herbs that you would only ever get to see on vaccation. Not only is it good for me but educational for my chefs at the same time. I shall go this afternoon!
    The lamb noodle soup sounds delicious.
    Miles

  2. Miles, I’d go nuts without Asian markets—anywhere! But a lot of the Mexican markets here carry fresh fruits, veggies and spices that can be used in Asian cooking as well.

  3. One white guy sets up a restaurant and his daily buying ritual involves going to the same places that local Thai restaurant owners go. And he’s treated like a genius. OK I’ve never eaten here and I am sure the food is great but on some level this is a form of racism. Why not follow around a Thai person on their daily market trips? You worried that they don’t speak English? Andy gets singled out wherever he goes though.

  4. Just discovered your site a few days ago as a link from “Eating Asia.” Very much enjoy your writing, the enthusiasm, and soulful sensibility of your work about food. I’m a professional cook at a well known white linen place in the Willamette Valley wine country, who also happens to cater and sell “cuisines of the sun” inspired street foods for lunch and at local events. I read Country’s comments regarding Andy Ricker. I was dumbfounded, to say the least. I don’t know Ricker, but I’ve been to Pok Pok several times. It’s deserving of the award bestowed by the Oregonian, for lots of reasons. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few general Thai/Viet eateries and some with single item specialization, the majority of Asian restaurants in PDX, as elsewhere, serve virtually indistinguishable menus within their ethnic profile, and manage to look virtually identical. Pok Pok is notable for it’s cross border SE Asian fare,emphasis on fresh and authentic ingredients, served in an interesting setting,with a menu featuring items most local customers had neither seen nor heard of. Ricker shows us that you don’t have to be a native of a particular region to do a great job with its cusine, as one TV food commentator has speculatively opined. You just have to be “true to the school,” do your homework and stick with it. “Racism?” Since I’m a fair haired European boy, is it racist on the part of Mexican restaurant proprieters to automatically give me flour tortillas, or in a Malaysian retaurant when I order fish head soup, be given it without the heads because the proprieter assumed I wouldn’t like them? Both of which have happened many times. Why, if “Country” is correct, I should probably stop selling the Asian, Jamaican and southern fare, for which I have become known, because I don’t possess the “ethnic or geographical bona fides.” If he’s right, then perhaps Jean George Vongerichten should close those retaurants in his empire featuring Asian influences. Bull. The qualities of good restaurant ownership/management know no color or ethnicity. And I admired your retrained response to his diatribe. I wish Mr. Ricker and you the best in your enterprises. I’ll keep reading and being a patron of both your efforts.

  5. Boy Jim I sure struck a chord with you.

    It has nothing to do with the successful restauranteur. And I share your respect and enthusiasm for this website ramblingspoon.

    Having spent much of my life as a person of European descent living in Asia, fluent in an Asian language as well, I became very tired of the nonstop attention nearly every time I step outside my door and start speaking the local language. You can speculate what it’s like to be in that position but I don’t think you know. This never-ending “interview”. Have you ever commented to an Asian-looking person in Oregon how well they speak English? Of course not.

    So think outside of the box for a minute, and granting the owner of this restaurant all of the respect and admiration he deserves, why do people in the local media follow him around and take pictures of him inside an Asian supermarket? Focus on something else. That’s all.

    You really got sidetracked on the flour tortilla fish head Jean George empire bit. This isn’t about the chef at all.

  6. Country,
    Thanks for your continued interest. Keep reading, because I’ll have lots of other posts after having followed Asians through their own kitchens and markets.

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