I have a shopping date with Andy Ricker, but when I finally catch up with him at 8:30 A.M., he’s already out prowling the city’s markets. (A chile shortage in the kitchen has him scouring Portland’s east-side outlets.) “I’m on the move,” he says. How does the owner of Pok Pok, The Oregonian’s pick for 2007 restaurant of the year, create the genuine hot-sticky-smoky-spicy flavors of the Southeast Asian street in decidedly non-tropical Oregon?
For starters, he does a lot of shopping. He goes alone, driving his black Toyota Tacoma truck from market to market. The ingredients he seeks are scattered, often elusive. He’ll find Thai white pepper one week but not the next. He’ll find frozen turmeric nowhere, then everywhere at once, so he’ll buy every last bag just in case. Fried pig skin? Try the Mexican markets. Free-range village chicken? It won’t happen, so Ricker uses game hens, “the closest thing to northern Thai hens…And I can’t fit anything bigger than that on my rotisserie.”
Sometimes—say, when the seasoning sauce distributed by Maekrua (Ricker’s preferred brand) turns up nowhere—he’s forced to switch brands. Customers seldom notice such subtle changes. “A lot of this food is so unfamiliar to people,” he says. But Ricker has a sensitive sniffer, capable of distinguishing the slightest variations in shrimp paste and fermented fish. He tests everything before serving it. “We’re striving to be really, really consistent.” Customers don’t always notice slight changes, he says. But consistency is critical to Ricker’s cooking.
He aims for authenticity, as served on Southeast Asian streets. But many American customers don’t understand that—Thai restaurants in the United States cater to customers with a sweet tooth. Americans have come to expect classic American Thai food, heavy on the sugar and low on traditional flavors. When they can’t find a sweet green curry or pad Thai at Pok Pok, they’re disappointed, “even angry,” Ricker says. “What do you mean you don’t have pad Thai? I drove here all the way from Beaverton for pad Thai!” But Ricker is trying to create a certain class of Asian food seldom found in Portland.
Portland’s markets are stocked largely by a few West Coast distributors. “You’re kind of at the mercy of these big guys,” Ricker says. Early in the year, “basically everything comes from Mexico.” It makes for aggravating differences in taste. “Trying to get the lime flavor of Thailand or Southeast Asia here is virtually impossible.” He adds orange juice or sugar to sour North American limes, but rarely achieves the ultimate balance. Likewise, it’s impossible to get real Thai chiles, the hot little kind used all over Thailand. So Ricker mixes and matches and patiently awaits the arrival of a shipping container packed with nam phrik spices (used for a chile paste) that he purchased earlier this year and had shipped from Thailand.
Lemongrass presents a nightmare unto itself—too fat, not enough zest. And a small cadre of California growers commands the market, leaving prices to fluctuate wildly. Ricker never knows whether a case of lemongrass will cost $20 or $100.
So he makes endless rounds, sometimes visiting six markets in a single morning, to stock Pok Pok’s cupboards. (Today’s trip totals four—Pacific Market, Lily Market, Fubonn Supermarket, and TP Produce; plus a pit stop at Binh Minh for Vietnamese beef stew.) Ricker’s discriminating palate reflects years of downing som tam and khao soi at the source. He knows his stuff. But a blond-haired man fetches some skeptical eyes in the Asian aisles.
“They’re really suspicious,” he says. Some people wonder why Pok Pok gets so much attention. Yet others in the Asian-American community bounce through his doors, no questions asked, just eager to eat. “It’s like in Thailand. You’re never going to be accepted fully,” Ricker says. And the gossip runs wild. How to explain the white guy with spot-on flavor? “There is a rumor going around town that I have a Thai wife doing all the cooking.”
He doesn’t. It’s Ricker and his staff. And wow, it’s good.
Pok Pok 3226 SE Division, Portland, OR (503-232-1387; pokpokpdx.com)