As I approach my fourteenth year in NYC, I'm weaning myself from a no-longer-relevant ownership of everything Portland. Like somehow I would have an affinity for Atera or Pok Pok because Mathew Lightner cooked at Castagna or Andy Ricker made a name for himself in Portland. Never mind that I was long gone before any of this dining excitement was occurring, and that I didn't grow up in Portlandia.
(Pre-twee Portland was working class when it wasn't unemployed, and unambitious and underdoggy with a chip on its shoulder–NYC certainly didn't make me this churlish–with a gun-loving, methy, murdery, white pride undercurrent. It's no coincidence that the aforementioned chefs are not native Oregonians.)
So, Pok Pok is purely new Portland, which means it's really good. And Brooklyn Pok Pok isn't a letdown either. I'm glad to finally have something in the neighborhood to shut me up over the crappy state of local Thai food. Even the wait, which I'm averse to on principle, wasn't horrible. Initially, I balked at an hour-and-a-half quote at 9:30pm on a weeknight, but in reality it was 30 minutes (my city maximum–yes, I've waited double that at chains in the suburbs) which passed quickly with a tamarind sour in one hand and a menu to peruse in the other. I've waited longer in Portland standing on the sidewalk getting drizzled on my non-polar-fleeced self.
First off: Pok Pok is not a Sripraphai competitor, which I've heard/read, I don't even remember where. Pok Pok is not for curries and it's not all Thai things to all people; the food is mostly northern or Issan while Sripraphai is primarily Bangkok-style. And it's fairly obvious that Pok Pok has different aspirations. You will not find Mangalitsa pork, La Belle Rouge chicken, Niman Ranch ribs, drinking vinegars, nor Stumptown iced coffees (is there artisanal condensed and evaporated milk?) at Sripraphai where I ordered a cocktail, a Thai mojito, for the first time on my last visit. I do miss the fridges full of desserts and nam prik, though. Well, and a lot of other things. You need Chao Thai, Ayada, and yes, Srirpraphai as much as you need Pok Pok in your world.
Also: Who cares if Andy Ricker isn't Thai? Or Harold Dirterle…or that I'm more Mexican than Alex Stupak (as if I were born knowing how to nixtamalize corn) and his food at Empellon Cocina hardly suffers. Does anyone question the ethnicity of chefs cooking French or Italian cuisine in the US, which is to say a large percentage of chefs in this country?
Oh, one other thing while I'm being a surly Portland transplant: Columbia Street is not Red Hook. Call it something invented like Columbia Street Waterfront District or Cobble Hill West, but you can no longer say an area is gritty when people are spending millions of dollars to live there. I just looked a house on the exact same block as Pok Pok for $1.6 million and a condo down the street for even more. Er, not gritty (though also not prime enough to command those inflated prices). A diner actually asked where he was and was told Red Hook. I should probably be more concerned with people who manage to get to a restaurant without knowing where they are than with neighborhood demarcations.
Finally…the food: Mangalitsa pork neck. When I eat at restaurants years apart I often end up picking the same things I ate the previous visit without realizing it. I only recognized this dish when the side of iced mustard greens showed up. It threw me for a loop in Portland (and on this crisp spring evening) because it's such a tropical weather touch. Translating an authentic presentation when there's no fear of wilting produce was odd and charming both times (and yes, I realize the cooling effect is also meant as a relief from the chile heat) though I'm sure it will be appropriately stifling and toasty come summer with nothing more than a ceiling fan for ventilation in the makeshift tent-like back room. But yes, the grilled slices of pork (it was boar in Portland–I would have to try them side by side to taste the difference) were rich enough to stand up to the garlicky, tart dressing (citrus played a major role in all the dishes we ordered).
Papaya salad is where you should feel the heat, and the addition of salted black crab didn't just add serious funk but raised the spice level to a point that burned but didn't obliterate the flavor (the extra-spicy fried chicken at Peaches Hothouse last weekend, for instance, crossed the line into needless pain). I happen to enjoy the hot garbage/festering corpse smell of fermented sea creatures in condiments, which never taste as ominous as they smell, but even smoothed out by lime juice and sugar this salad still retained a distinctive sludge color.
I hate to say it, but sometimes I find larbs boring or overly healthy (probably because I make them with Costco chicken breasts) but with grilled catfish it was perfect because of the fluffy, crispy texture you might typically associate with yam pla duk fu served with shredded green mango instead of larbified with herbs and shallots. The flavors were really bright with lemongrass and mint; galangal sweetness peeked through. This might have been my favorite of the three.
And the most simple thing that garnered attention was the pandan-steeped water at each table. I'll never understand the audience for Mio water enhancers, i.e. people who don't like the taste of water, but if you're going to infuse water, vanilla-jasmine ricey-smelling pandan is the way to go.
Pok Pok NY *127 Columbia St., Brooklyn, NY