Pok Pok NY: Thai, By Way of Portland

The thing I adore about traveling is discovering a terrific restaurant — a place with dishes so delicious that just the memory of them, even months later, gets you instantly salivating.

Of course, the downside to this is your immense sadness over the fact that you won’t be able to sample those flavors until you travel back there again.

Which is why I just about had a fit when I heard that Portland, Ore., chef Andy Ricker was opening Pok Pok NY in Brooklyn.

Now, I had the great fortune of dining at Pok Pok in Portland not once but twice last year thanks to my book travels — Ricker’s Thai and Southeast Asian noodle dishes tantalized; his intensely flavorful crispy fried chicken wings were seared in my memory. Each time I left I found myself wishing he had a branch in New York.

And then, a few weeks ago, it happened …

Before we made the trek to his almost-Red Hook location, we had been warned — the place is small and the wait tends to be an hour or more.

At 8:30 p.m. on a Sunday, this proved to be true — the tiny place was packed to the gills. The host said it would be an hour or more and took my number down. (He texted the moment we left to wait it out at a nearby boite so I had his number to text back should our plans change. A nice touch, I thought.)

Just over an hour later, a text came summoning us to the restaurant, where the host led us around the side of the restaurant, over a dark gravel parking lot to a large bright tent attached to the back of the building.

This being a cold night, we were concerned about the temperatures — the host assured us it was heated, even though it sure didn’t feel like it. Since we didn’t want to wait any more, we started ordering.

The restaurant’s signature Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings ($12.50) were a must, of course — marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar then tossed with garlic and deep fried, these were heavenly when we had them in Portland.

Perhaps it was me but while the Brooklyn ones were tasty, they were not as sticky, crispy or coated with garlic as …

… the ones I’d had in Portland, which came so coated with savory chunks I practically had to pick them out of my teeth.

A chef friend had highly recommended the sai ua samun phrai ($14), grilled Chiang Mai sausage (flavored with Burmese spices and other aromatics) with spicy chili dip and Thai pork rinds.

This was fine all around — I loved the taste combination of the char from the sausage with fresh veggies and basil on the plate. (Although, I have to admit my favorite thing on this dish was the pork rinds — these were outstanding. If Pok Pok NY sold them by the bag I would have bought a kilo.)

I am a sucker for any omelette with shellfish in it and Pok Pok NY has one of these on the menu — the $14 hoi thawt, a chunky crepe with mussels, bean sprouts and garlic chives. Served with a side of sriracha, this was very satisfying.

As was the $15 gingery prawns baked in a claypot and topped with vermicelli.

The dish that stole my heart, however, was the laap plaa duuk yaang isaan ($14), a roasted catfish salad packed with minced galangal, mint, chilis and more that was so filled with complex flavor that I actually started chewing very slowly so I could try to dissect the spices in it. As salads go, this was unforgettable — and I loved the slight crunchiness the toasted rice powder sprinkled on top added.

The desserts did not disappoint either — I loved the Chinese-style fried dough sticks that came with our affogato. In Singapore, I love to dunk these into hot soy milk for breakfast or a late supper — turns out they work just as well in affogato as well.

And our coconut bread sundae — while a little sweet for me — was a hit at our table.

Durian — otherwise known as the “king of fruit” in Southeast Asia — is one of my absolute favorite things. So I practically jumped out of my seat when our waiter mentioned it.

“Is it fresh?” was my first question. And he assured me that of course, it was. This surprised me because durian is pungent — if you love it like I do, that’s terrific. But if you are one of those who thinks it smells like a cross between poo and burnt tires then, well, that’s not so terrific. I’m always surprised when it makes an appearance in restaurants.

And here, when it arrived, given how I could hardly smell it even though the dish was right in front of me, I knew that this certainly wasn’t fresh durian packed into a cube. In fact, its taste had been watered down so much you could barely detect it.

Overall, the meal was pretty good — apart from the fact that we were freezing the entire time in the said heated tent. Until the next time I head back to Portland, Pok Pok NY will do very nicely in tiding me over.

Pok Pok NY, 127 Columbia Street, Brooklyn, New York; 718.923.9322; http://www.pokpokny.com/home/ ; pokpokny@gmail.com

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