Portland chef opening bar a few doors down from hit restaurant
Ever since famed Portland chef Andy Ricker opened Pok Pok Ny in the charming Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook earlier this year, there have been lines around the block to get in. It’ a small space that doesn’t hold too many people, and Ricker needed to find a way to keep those waiting for a table occupied and happy. What better way than by opening up a bar right next door?
Coming soon: Whiskey Soda Lounge, an outpost of the bar with the same name back in Portland. Ricker told Florence Fabricant that the bar will open just a few doors down from Pok Pok, and will serve up a variety of cocktails as well as Thai-style “drinking food,” including the famous Ike’s Vietnamese-Style Fish Sauce Wings, house-roasted peanuts, and grilled flank steak, as well as deep-fried goodies including stewed pig ears, dried pork, pork riblets, and pork chitlins.
While also a small space, this will still be the ideal place to wait it out until your tabe is ready at Pok Pok. But judging by Ricker’s popularity, Whiskey Soda Lounge will most likely turn into a destination itself.
Pok Pok to open a new bar with Thai drinking snacks
Pok Pok has always felt somewhere between an exotic camp out and Bangkok at midnight. This summer it started looking like something else: Fort Lauderdale on spring break. A feeding frenzy of local devotees and curious eaters reading about Pok Pok in the national media has pushed this magical world of indoor/outdoor eating to capacity.
Owner Andy Ricker has a new solution: He's opening a bar across the street and taking the name "Whiskey Soda Lounge" with it. Construction is now underway in the old McGraw Marketing building, kitty-corner to Pok Pok at 3131 S.E. Division St.
When it opens after the New Year, Pok Pok will become the sole name for "the shack," the take-out window, outdoor eating huts and the adjacent basement dining space (now called Pok Pok/Whiskey Soda Lounge).
But don't think new restaurant or even an alternate Pok Pok dining room. The new WSL, says Ricker, "will act as a waiting area for Pok Pok and a neighborhood bar for others" with Pok Pok's cocktails and a small collection of Thai drinking snacks.
In addition to the 49-seat lounge, Ricker and partner Kurt Huffman are adding a larger prep kitchen for Pok Pok. "It's going to make life and work easier at 2pok for customer and employee alike," says Ricker. "The kitchen crew won't have to battle it out for space on the hot line, as they do now, or carry hundreds of pounds of chicken up and down a flight of stairs every day."
Ricker's idea of a "small menu" still means an excitement of flavors. Deep-fried chicken tendons, sour sausages and dried beef are already on his think-out-loud list, and he will undoubtedly dip into his vast repertoire from ongoing street-food journeys to Asia.
Since opening in late 2005 with a limited budget, Ricker has shown impressive business acumen. When Pok Pok was named The Oregonian's Restaurant of the Year in 2007, the crowds put pressure on a minimal operating system with limited seating. Ricker responded with an expanded upstairs space, covered outdoor tables and an orchestrated seating system. But lines have continued to grow in recent months as Pok Pok has captured the attention of The New York Times, Food & Wine magazine and The Today Show. Few places stand taller after intense success (most do the opposite), and even fewer maintain culinary integrity, but Ricker continues to sharpen and soar.
The new WSL will add late-night hours, to catch the Southeast neighborhood action.
But what about Pok Pok's famed Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings? Regulars would wail in despair if the new lounge dared to open without them.
So he's declaring right now: "Yes, we will serve the chicken wings at WSL."
Question is: What will Ricker do when you can't get into the Whiskey Soda Lounge?
Andy Ricker Is Closing Pok Pok’s Last Remaining Restaurants, Bringing an End to One of Portland’s Preeminent Food Empires
The phrase "end of an era" has perhaps been overused the past few months, but in this case, it's especially appropriate: Pok Pok is no more.
This morning, owner Andy Ricker announced he will be closing the last remaining outposts of his Thai food empire, including the brand's flagship location on Southeast Division Street.
Ricker had previously shuttered four of his other Portland properties earlier in 2020, leaving only the original restaurant and the Pok Pok Wing in Southeast Portland, though both remained shut down due to the pandemic.
Now, those two are gone for good as well—or, as Ricker put it in on Instagram, "dunzo, kaput, pit moht laew."
"I swore when Pok Pok opened that if it ever reached the point where it was all about profit and loss, I would shut it down and walk away," he wrote in a post titled "A Farewell to Pok Pok." "I have far too much respect and love for the food and culture of Thailand for it to be solely about the commercial aspects of the business. Fuck that. So when COVID made it ALL about the bottom line that was my cue to pull the plug."
A Farewell to Pok Pok from @pawkhrua
A post shared by pokpokpdx (@pokpokpdx) on Oct 30, 2020 at 8:25am PDT
Ricker opened the original Pok Pok at 3226 SE Division St. in 2005, introducing Portland to the cuisine of North Thailand. It grew into one of Portland's most popular restaurants, achieving national acclaim and winning Ricker a James Beard Award in 2011. His signature Vietnamese fish sauce wings are among the city's most iconic dishes―WW named it one of the "12 Wonders of Portland Food" in 2015.
Attempts to expand into New York and Los Angeles were less successful, closing after only a few years, but the Pok Pok brand became ubiquitous in Portland, spinning off into four fast-casual variations and a bar, Whiskey Soda Lounge.
In June, Ricker closed all but the original restaurant and a single Pok Pok Wing location, citing financial strain from the state-mandated COVID-19 business closures. He wrote then that the move was made to give the flagship location a chance of survival.
Today, though, Ricker wrote that there is "[n]o sense going deeper into debt in order to survive."
"Holding onto hope for some sort of resurrection post COVID was so tempting because that is what we do…we keep going, no matter what, until it is impossible to do so (often far too long after it is wise to do so)," he wrote. "But I know when I am licked. And I am licked."
Ricker writes that the other restaurants "have been transferred to new operators or returned to landlords." (Whiskey Soda Lounge, once the de facto waiting room for the original Pok Pok, is now occupied by Gado Gado spinoff Oma's Takeaway.) The flagship property, meanwhile, is for sale, "lock, stock and (literal) fish sauce barrel."
As for Ricker, he is currently in Thailand, in a village outside Chiang Mai, where he was already spending part of the year. He plans on staying there permanently.
"[I]t is an exciting time to be here to witness younger Thai chefs moving their cuisine into the 21st century with skill, care and a sense of history," he wrote. "To be here for it, watching and peripherally involved, is both a joy and an honor."
A native Southern Californian, Arts & Culture Editor Matthew Singer ruined Portland by coming here in 2008. He is an advocate for the canonization of the Fishbone and Oingo Boingo discographies, believes pro-wrestling is a serious art form and roots for the Lakers. Unfortunately, he doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon.
Share All sharing options for: Andy Ricker Is Handing Over the Whiskey Soda Lounge Space to Carla Hall
Whiskey Soda Lounge , the excellent Thai bar/restaurant on Columbia Street from chef Andy Ricker, may be closing up shop soon. This afternoon, Hustle and Flo Fab tweets about the impending closure of Whiskey Soda Lounge, and Carla Hall's plans to move into the space. But at this point, there are no other details on the fate of the restaurant. When reached by phone, a Whiskey Soda Lounge employee would not confirm or deny the rumors about the shutter, but the restaurant is indeed open for business this evening. Ricker opened the restaurant two summers ago as a place for people to hang out while they waited for dinner at Pok Pok Ny down the street.
Eater has reached out to Ricker about the news. More details as they become available.
UPDATE: Andy Ricker tells Eater that the "last day of service is today," and he notes that Carla Hall's team will move into the space soon. So, if you want to raise a glass to Whiskey Soda Lounge, tonight is your last chance to do that. Ricker also operates the stellar Pok Pok NY and Pok Pok Phat Thai down the block.
No word yet on what Carla's got planned for the space. Last year, she started an online fundraising campaign for a Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant called Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen. Stay tuned for more details on her new Columbia Street project as they become available.
UPDATE 2: Andy Ricker passes along this statement about Whiskey Soda Lounge:
I am writing you with equal amounts of sadness and excitement to inform you of the closing of Whiskey Soda Lounge Ny. Despite a small loyal following and critical success, including a nice one star review by Pete Wells in the NYT, WSLNY never found it's footing in the neighborhood. Contributing to this is the fact that since Pok Pok Ny started taking reservations, the need for a place to hold people while waiting for a table has diminished. While I am saddened by the fact it never really caught on the way the concept has in Portland, I am also very proud of what we were able to deliver to the few folks who did make it a regular stop, and to those we hosted while they waited for a table at Pok Pok Ny.
The good news, and the exciting part of this turn of events, is that we have found a buyer for the space in the person of Carla Hall and her team, who plan on opening a concept as soon as they are able to get the space remodeled to suit their needs. I will leave them to explain their plans and simply say that we welcome Carla to the neighborhood with the hopes that a more diverse restaurant scene in our little corner of Red Hook will bring more folks to the Columbia Waterfront District, joining Pok Pok Ny, Pok Pok Phat Thai, The Hop Shop, Alma's as well as all the other small businesses and restaurants nearby.
In the meantime, Pok Pok Phat Thai at 127 Columbia Street (the original location of Pok Pok Ny) has a full liquor license and we welcome folks to hang out there should there be a wait for a table at Pok Pok Ny, if they do not have a reservation. Phat Thai also serves our famous Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings as well as Thai noodles and offers delivery via DoorDash.
Most Portland Pok Pok restaurants will not reopen, chef Andy Ricker says
Pok Pok, the Portland-based Thai restaurant group that once stretched from New York to Los Angeles, will not reopen the majority of its restaurants after COVID-19, chef-owner Andy Ricker wrote on Instagram Monday.
According to Ricker, the closures will affect the Pok Pok NW at 1639 N.W. Marshall St., the Pok Pok Wing in the former Pok Pok Noi at 1469 N.E. Prescott St., the Pok Pok Wing in the former Humdinger Drive-In at 8250 S. Barbur Blvd. as well as the decade-old Whiskey Soda Lounge at 3131 S.E. Division St.
“These closures are necessary so that the original Pok Pok on Division Street may have a chance of reopening when it is safe and financially tenable to do so,” Ricker wrote.
The Pok Pok Wing location at 3120 S.E. Milwaukie Ave. could also reopen at some point in the future, Ricker wrote.
Ricker did not immediately return a request for further comment Monday, but he did lay out the reasoning behind the permanent closures in his post:
“The economic reality is that we simply cannot afford to reopen these locations, given the face that 1) it is unsafe for workers in a city, state and country with no cohesive plan for testing and tracing COVID-19 cases, no mandatory mask policy for the public, no vaccine and no treatment 2) phase 1 & 2 restrictions on operating restaurants will render us unable to seat enough customers to make payroll let alone break even 3) the carrying costs incurred as we wait until we can reopen are draining what little resources we have at a rate that will leave us with no money to reopen all locations when the time comes and 4) the cost of reopening a restaurant is huge and given all the other factors plus the possibility of being shut down again if cases surge, even if we did have the resources to reopen it would be risky at best and ruinous at worst.”
Share All sharing options for: Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker Is Expanding to LA and to Supermarket Shelves
After building successful empires in Portland, Oregon and New York City, Pok Pok's Andy Ricker announced last week that he's setting his sights on Los Angeles. The celebrated Thai-food ambassador — who owns concepts like Pok Pok, Whiskey Soda Lounge, Sen Yai (his Portland noodle house), and the bottled Pok Pok Som drinking vinegars — plans two restaurants in the city's Chinatown. One will be a noodle-focused Pok Pok Phat Thai and the other, a 6,000-square-foot Los Angeles Pok Pok, will be the largest of Ricker's restaurants. "It takes a few years to really hit your stride," Ricker says of the California expansion, which comes three years after he branched out to New York City. "I think we've finally really hit our stride in New York. So I feel like, at this point, I am able to do something else, and LA seems the next logical step."
Ricker recently chatted with Eater about his LA plans and the world of Pok Pok moving forward, including his strategy to encourage neighborhood "regrowth and rejuvenation," the importance of diversifying, and hints that Pok Pok's iconic Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings may soon be coming to a freezer case near you.
What made the timing right to open in LA now?
The reason we chose LA is pretty simple. I'm tired of opening restaurants in cities that are in Pacific Northwest and [the Northeast], where the climate is polar opposite — not quite polar opposite — but pretty far fucking opposite from the right climate to grow the stuff that we need. So I swore that if there was going to be any more expansion at all, it would only be in cities where getting our product was not only not an issue, but hopefully close to places where they actually grew the stuff that we need.
I lived in LA in the mid '80s, and at the time, it was good: I was 22 years old and it was a fun time to be there, but it was also kind of dire, it was kind of bleak… I had just seen some really ugly crap on the streets and I just started hating it, I felt like it was a big soulless metropolis and I was done. I left and I swear I'd never go back. I started going there for business stuff over the last couple years, and every time I go down, I'm like, "Wow . LA's cool." More stuff is happening. There's a booming food scene: You can really feel it when you're in a city where things are starting to [take off] like that. It's how Portland felt 10 years ago. LA is a little bit past that, but it's got that same vibe, there's stuff happening. It seems like a good time to be there.
Why Chinatown in LA? What attracted you to that neighborhood?
Chinatown is interesting. Part of it was built more or less as. I have to look back on the history to really get it straight, but it was built as an amusement park almost. It was built to look like China. It's kind of got this crumbling glory. There's all these old buildings and plazas that look really cool. There was a boom in the '70s when they built all these plazas there. So it's this very odd but very cool mixture of Chinese folks who have stuck around for a long time and held on to some of their stuff, and a big Vietnamese influx.
There's also been an influx of artists, architects, design firms, that kind of thing — photographers, creatives, musicians — that have been living there for a long time now because of the proximity to downtown, central location, and the rents were cheap. You could get a cool space down there. Then for us, which is awesome, there's a very large Thai grocery warehouse called LAX-C — that's huge, it's like going into a Costco, except there's full of Thai stuff. The proximity to that is great. It's going to take some work, but I just feel like there's a lot of opportunity there.
It allows us to plant our flag and do our thing at a price point that makes sense to me.
My philosophy and the M.O. of the restaurant is to go into neighborhoods that are in relatively close proximity to other interesting neighborhoods [but] are under-served a little bit, don't have as many amenities as some of the more densely-populated neighborhoods. It allows us to plant our flag and do our thing at a price point that makes sense to me: Get in there at a rent that's reasonable and not only take advantage of that, but be part of the regrowth and the rejuvenation of neighborhoods. We're not moving into residential neighborhoods and creating a commercial thing. We're moving into old commercial neighborhoods that have seen their better days, coming in, and trying to help be part of the regrowth.
How instrumental do you think a restaurant is to boosting neighborhood growth in the way you're talking about?
I think that restaurants are social-gathering places: They're places to go drinking, and now, in these days, it's where young people go to hang out. It's the main social hub, I feel, of young to middle-aged folks. That's what we do now. We don't go to movies, we go to restaurants… So do restaurants help drive development? Yeah, absolutely, I'd say.
For you personally, what's the strategy behind opening several concepts within, literally, a stone's throw of each other? [In Portland, three of Ricker's restaurants are within a three-block stretch in NYC, the Lower East Side location of Pok Pok Phat Thai is in the process of moving to Brooklyn, closer to Ricker's other restaurants.]
It's just an economy of doing business. Because here's the thing. If you open multiple concepts, anybody with a good head on their shoulders is going to have a central kitchen. If you have a central kitchen and you then deliver to a whole bunch of different neighborhoods, that's logistically difficult. But if they're all lined up in a row, the truck pulls up at each one and boom, you're done. logistically, it makes sense.
Number two, we opened Whiskey Soda Lounge [in NYC and Portland] out of a need. We needed a place because we were busy at Pok Pok. We don't have a bar there for people to hang out in. Traditional restaurants have a bar lounge, waiting area, and then you go sit in the dining room. We didn't have that. So people would show up and go, "Well, can we sit in the bar and have a drink?" We were sending them across the street to another bar. We were creating a situation where the person was having two hospitality experiences: ours and whoever we sent them to. And those two philosophies are not the same, right? It became increasingly more difficult to get people back and to get people back happy. Then the other thing that was happening is that we got busier and busier at Pok Pok. We were running out of kitchen space, so we needed another kitchen. So, getting the Whiskey Soda Lounge just made sense. it was a no-brainer.
So is it the same idea with announcing two concepts in LA simultaneously? Like, you're sort of anticipating you will need commissary space nearby Pok Pok LA?
No, so there's another thing that happened. When we moved to New York, I opened the wing shop [Pok Pok Wing] on the Lower East Side. This was going into a new market where we don't know how we were going to be received. We wanted to test the waters in a low-risk, low-rent sort of way. relatively speaking. So we got the spot on the Lower East Side and we opened quickly for not much money, and introduced the brand to New York. That was a very, very good thing, too: We got our name into the media, there was a buzz growing about it. And since we already had something open, we could say, "Hey, here's a sampling of what we're gonna do." Meanwhile, we're working on opening this other one and people start getting excited about the other one.
Same story here. I negotiated, went through the negotiation for the big space, which is 6,000-square-foot, two-floor [restaurant] — so we're going to have a bar and dining room and an outdoor patio. It has more seating than any restaurant we've done. It's a real restaurant. [Laughs] We're going to have a bar in the same building, it's amazing. But this other opportunity popped up in another plaza down the street on North Broadway, in a space directly across the courtyard, inside the plaza, from Roy Choi's Chego. This will introduce the brand to LA. It'll put us into a little community of like-minded restaurants. I really like Roy a lot. We think similar in a lot of ways. He's already created this thing down there with his place.
So since both Pok Pok Wing and Phat Thai are like introductory concepts, does that mean Portland, for example, will never get just a Pok Pok Wing at any point?
Pok Pok Wing was born out of necessity. We had a recognizable product, the Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings that, for better or for worse, have come to personify what Pok Pok is for a certain sector of our clients. For me, it's not. For me, it's about something else. But for some people, that's what it is, and I've done very little to capitalize on that.
A smarter person than me would probably have a string of wing shops by now.
That's probably stupid. We've been on every goddamn TV show and we sell an insane amount of those things without trying at all, and a smarter person than me would probably have a string of wing shops by now. But I'm not that smart. At least I haven't figured out how to do it yet. I mean, I have an idea how to do it, I just haven't put any time into it. But will Portland have that? Probably not.
Right now, what I'm trying to figure out is how to do something besides restaurants. Look, the restaurant business is very, very difficult, always has been. The profit margin is very thin and it's getting harder and harder by the day with. I'm a bleeding-heart liberal, but they're introducing laws that are going to make it more and more prohibitive for restaurants like mine to do business. We're not a kind of restaurant that gets $100 per head. We're getting, like, $30 a head. It's going to be extremely difficult to pay for sick leave, health insurance, a huge minimum wage which doesn't take into account tipping. I'm trying to find a way to do stuff that isn't restaurants to create a revenue stream, so that the restaurants can continue to offer what we offer for a price that I think is what we should offer it at, and so that I can continue to be in the restaurant business. Because if things keep going the way they are now, I don't know what the future's going to bring, to be quite honest with you. We already have the drinking vinegars and that's just now coming into a place where we're starting to make profit after five years.
Five years? Wow.
I haven't taken a dime from it since the beginning. But one of my employees and I have started a charcoal company: It's a natural charcoal from Thailand, an extruded charcoal, that we've been using at the restaurant for about a year now. It burns really clean, it's really good stuff. So we started that. I'm working on developing some snack foods, some sauces. We've been trying to wrap our heads around what it would take to get the chicken wings into a freezer case at a supermarket, and that's something that's been on my mind. There's a bunch of stuff coming down the pike. It's going to take a while, a lot of it's in planning stages. I just feel like there's a whole bunch of opportunity out there to do stuff that isn't restaurants. But I love restaurants.
Do you have an exit strategy?
I don't have an exit strategy, really. I love restaurants, but they are incredibly stressful to deal with. I'm still stuck in the minutia to a certain extent, I'm still advising people on how to fix faucets and stuff. And I have to be pulled out of that eventually because it's going to kill me. I don't have that kind of strategy, but what I do know is that. I'm just going to keep on doing what I'm doing, and eventually, I plan to not be involved in day-to-day operations of whatever it is that I'm doing to such an extent. I'll never not be involved, but I'd like to back off a little bit at some point in the distant future.
I'll collect the rent and live in a grass shack in Thailand. I'll be all right.
My way of feeling confident and calm about everything is that I own Pok Pok. I own the building, I own the land, I own the restaurant. It's 100 percent mine. I don't have any partners. So if everything goes to shit, you'd shrink it down to that one place, because quite honestly, that's the place that gives me my income. I could shrink it down to that and either carry on with Pok Pok in its current form or change the form. Or I could simply just say, "Look, I'm not doing restaurants anymore," and sell the restaurant to somebody to operate their own damn restaurant, and I'll collect the rent and live in a grass shack in Thailand. I'll be all right. I'm not going to end up on the street.
#8: Pok Pok, Portland, OR and Brooklyn, NY
I have no doubt that if Andy Ricker wanted to cook burgers, pizza, or tacos, they would be some of the best versions I've ever had. But Ricker cooks laap pet issan , muu paa kham waan , khao soi , and other northern and northeastern Thai dishes at his casual, bicoastal spots. And people wait in line to get in, ordering rounds of fiery salads and fragrant grilled pork neck as if they were chips and salsa (and washing them down with inventive cocktails). Are the dishes "authentic"? I have no idea, and I don't care. By going beyond pad thai and green curry, Ricker opened up a world of flavors—and a world-class cuisine—to a generation that didn't even know they needed them.
Not your average pad thai: Ricker's take on the late-night snack is light-years beyond typical takeout.
A Thai shrine in one of Pok Pok's spin-off restaurants, Whiskey Soda Lounge, in Portland, OR.
Pok Pok's whole steamed fish is a simple, sublime dish that begs to be torn into by the table.
The outdoor dining area gives the place a real "am I at a roadside stand in Thailand?" vibe.
Another must-order at Pok Pok: the iconic papaya salad, shown here with cherry tomatoes.
An array of dishes, including Pok Pok's signature rotisserie-roasted game hen, on the left.
Pok Pok Phat Thai and Pok Pok LA opened in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles in December 2014 and November 2015 respectively,   but Pok Pok Phat Thai closed in August 2016. 
There was also a Brooklyn location,   which closed September 2, 2018. 
COVID-19 pandemic Edit
In March 2020, Pok Pok announced its indefinite closure of all locations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had an impact on the restaurant industry due to social distancing mandates and guidelines. Initially, Pok Pok followed the example of many restaurants across the US in providing takeout and delivery services while dine-in remains prohibited. Following the coronavirus-caused death of New York chef, Floyd Cardoz, Pok Pok's Andy Ricker published a statement explaining Cardoz' death as the reason for the change in strategy. Ricker cited the tragedy as a “wake-up call to the restaurant industry” and himself. 
In mid June, Ricker confirmed the permanent closure of Pok Pok NW, Whiskey Soda Lounge, and the northeast and southwest Pok Pok Wing locations, leaving just the main restaurant and possibly the southeast Pok Pok Wing location.  Ricker announced closure of the original and remaining locations in October 2020.  
According to The Oregonian, the restaurant "has emerged as one of those quintessentially Portland institutions, a sort of rags-to-riches story of the street cart that became a restaurant that became a legend." 
On October 1, 2014, Pok Pok NY received a star in the 2015 Michelin Guide. 
Does the World Still Need Pok Pok?
Portland's food world was surprised by Monday's Instagram announcement from Andy Ricker: “With great sadness, we have decided to close Whiskey Soda Lounge, Pok Pok NW, Pok Pok Wing SW and NE permanently. Closures are necessary so that the original PP on SE Division will have a chance to reopen when it is safe and financially tenable.”
Translation: Pok Pok Wing SE may or may not reopen. And the mothership lives, for now. This is the chariot that helped put Portland in America's food conversation in 2007 and fueled Ricker's rise as an esteemed expert and cookbook author on Thai grilling. Currently, Pok Pok is only serving take-out meal kits, ordered online.
All closures are painful, but this one hit home for several reasons: Ricker is not just a national superstar chef, but a savvy restaurateur. When he says the economic costs of Covid-19 are serious, take note: They are serious.
Among the reasons he cites: lack of a cohesive plan for worker safety and no mandatory mask policy. It's not the first time he has sounded a warning. But he's just as adamant now. “Working in a kitchen, in close quarters, is still a pretty fucking unacceptable risk.”
Meanwhile, Whiskey Soda Lounge is a major loss. Since 2010, Ricker's funky DIY surf shack, across the street from the original Pok Pok, stood as a testament to aahaan kap klaem, the joyful world of Thai bar snacks, meant to be eaten with whiskey and rarely seen outside of their home turf. Whiskey Soda Lounge introduced Portland (and much of America) to the concept of “drinking foods,” a genre that helped define Portland's food and drink scene.
He never planned to build an empire. Ricker fell in love with a cuisine in 1992, returning to Thailand over and over, learning the language, studying the food, and telling stories about the people he met. With Pok Pok, he just wanted us to understand why, without concessions to the timid American palate. “Thai food,” he told me in 2007, “is so much more than what we see on menus here in Portland.”
Still, he has grappled with the idea of a white guy cooking Thai food. And in a time of great upheaval, when so much is being reconsidered, he's asking the question: Does the world still need Pok Pok?
Here's Ricker, in his own words, raw and unfiltered, in a deeply reflective phone conversation with Portland Monthly:
“There will be no shortage of restaurant property when we come out of this. If we want to expand again, opportunities will be there. I think about that now. But complete transparency: We weren't doing that great right before Covid hit. We were doing better than last year at the same time. But by no means were we on the climb. We had sustained a climb over 12 years, then went down over the last few years. At the end of the day, the idea that you could simply reopen and things would go back to normal … that's not a good starting point. “Normal” is not good. A lot of issues haven't gone away, things we've talked about for years there was no point in coming out of this exactly like before.
Another layer to this? How do you come out of this to be sustainable in the long run? To reopen will take a lot of planning, training, a lot of new things we have to do to reopen, in the best scenario.
If nothing else, this gives me more time to contemplate what Pok Pok will be going into the future. To think about how we navigate the new world we're living with, to address things like inequality to put ourselves in a position where we can charge enough money to make a profit and take care of employees. It's a lot to contemplate.
I kind of see this as a big reset, for the way we go about thinking of every aspect of our lives—business, relationships, the way we vote. It feels like a very big moment, a time of transition and self-examination.
Also, I must ask a bigger question: Should Pok Pok reopen? It's a big question to ponder: Do we have something to say and should we have the platform to say it? These are important questions to ponder.
I have no intention of reopening Pok Pok just for commerce. Of course, that needs to be part of any business plan, but Pok Pok has never been solely about making money. I hope that has been clear. If all we have left to offer is a commercial concern, there's no reason to keep on. If I'm still contributing to the conversation, in a positive way, with value, that makes sense. If that time has passed, OK. I've always said: I want Pok Pok to exist as a place until it's no longer relevant. If not, so be it. I know we can produce food that tastes good. We can deliver a good experience. But I'm talking about raison d'être. Meaning and relevance. I'm not saying that's the case. I have a very compelling life in Thailand, where I live part of the year. My wife is there, and a lot of friends, too. But the business keeps me in two places. Maybe this is a part of a grand reset?
Over the years, I've really tried hard to be respectful of the food and culture we're representing. I've always said, “Don't look at me, look at the cuisine, these amazing people that make it. I am but a student.” I truly believe that I've been coming from the right place. Right now is the time to be thinking about the fact that we live in a world that systemically lowers the value of food that people of color make and raises the value of food that white people make. I've been the recipient of awards, attention, voice, and platform. Unless you're not fucking paying attention, you have got to be having this thought. This is the moment. To be deeply self-critical. Whatever happens, this is not the end.”
The woman in the woolen hat mouths the words on the sidewalk in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where Andy Ricker has opened the latest outpost of his Thai-food realm.
She scrunches her face as she reads the sign. Pok Pok?
But she never glances at the narrow walk-down storefront below, where behind the window a pan full of huge Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings crackles over an electric range. The 15 customers packed in the tiny dining room chatter about the three choices on the menu, and overhead a vintage Thai-pop cover of "Hit the Road Jack" trills from the speakers.
She mouths the words again, as if satisfied she's got it right. Pok Pok. She moves on.
The funny name of Ricker's restaurant, the latest Portland export to New York's food scene, is just one more oddity here. The question of how many New Yorkers will want to solve the mystery behind the name and actually try the food is key to the success of Portland's most celebrated chef.
Seven years ago, Ricker opened his first Pok Pok in a wooden shack on Portland's Southeast Division Street, with $60 left in his bank account. Nine months ago, he won the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Northwest Award in what amounts to the Oscars of food. He has opened or co-opened five restaurants in Portland, with a sixth on the way, because he's the white guy who serves the obscure, difficult Northern Thai dishes that native Thai cooks don't dare try on Americans.
Now Ricker is leveraging the whole thing—using $300,000 of his own money and small-business loans—in his bid to become a major player in the nation's toughest culinary scene.
"The time is now to pull the trigger, if you're going to pull the trigger," Ricker says. "Is there a chance I could get my ass handed to me? Of course. New York loves to love and they love to hate.â
Ricker's big moment comes as Portland enjoys its own fling with New Yorkers. Our Stumptown coffee is now their coffee. Our TV show is their show. Will our chicken wings be theirs too? Even if you've never eaten Ike's wings, Ricker's gamble is by extension this city's as well.
Succeeding in New York is exponentially harder than succeeding in Portland. It's more expensive, the attention spans are shorter, and restaurateurs are fiercely protective of their territory—both geographic and culinary.
Ricker doesn't just want to survive in New York. He's opening two places at once and wants his restaurant to explode into a chain that will bring Northern Thai street food to all parts of the city.
To succeed, Ricker will need skill and luck. But he may also need to move beyond the intense DIY ethos that made him a success in Portland. He obsessively controlled every detail of Pok Pok to the exclusion of nearly everything else, making quiet but unyielding demands that his people cook Thai food his way.
But if he's going to expand—if he's going to have an empire that spans two coasts—he must grow Pok Pok beyond the point where he can possibly control it.
And that's a place where Andy Ricker has never been before.
Ricker is 48 and looks like Bruce Willis—cold gray eyes, thick jowls, and the intensity of a detective on one last stakeout. He speaks softly but swears so often it's as if he's being paid by the f-bomb.
He arrived in New York as a foodie celebrity. Eater NY, the influential food blog, has wryly dubbed him the âchicken wing messiah.â In November, a New York Times freelancer followed him around Thailand. Bon AppÃ©tit magazine gave his recipes its center spread in January.
But right now, Ricker doesn't need press. What he needs is a cooking scale.
It's 10 minutes before the restaurant-supply shops in the Bowery close, and Ricker walks double-speed eight blocks west across Manhattan.
"I don't have a life outside the restaurants," he says. "I don't have kids. I don't have any other significant interests. I'm single at the moment, and probably will be for some time. I'm a pretty ambitious guy. I'm in survival mode."
He makes it to the restaurant-supply shop Bari Equipment with five minutes to spare. The store is owned by a manifestly proud Italian family a framed poster shows Don Corleone holding a slicer and reads, "I'm gonna make you a pizza you can't refuse."
Ricker hunts for a scale amid the aisles of blenders, ovens and plastic ketchup and mustard bottles. The owner asks him the name of his restaurant.
"Down Rivington," corrects the owner. "By the bridge."
Ricker chuckles. His restaurant, Pok Pok Wing, is indeed a block from the Williamsburg Bridge. The old guy is marking his turf for the outsider.
New York City's dining market is notoriously tough. The most commonly cited number, first asserted in the 2004 documentary Eat This New York, is that 80 percent of new restaurants in the city fail within five years. A restaurant lasting three years is a marvel.
But many people believe Ricker will make it. "Out-of-town chefs almost always wash out in New York," says New York-based food writer Josh Ozersky, who founded the Grub Street blog and now writes for Time. "They never succeed. They get chewed up and spit out. The city invariably roughs them up pretty good and sends them back to whatever province they came from. But Andy may be the exception."
Mark Bitterman, who recently expanded his Portland salt shop
to a second location in Manhattan, is more succinct: "Ricker is going to destroy."
And he's trying to do it twice.
Pok Pok Wing is in the former Rivington Street location of a Chinese pork-bun restaurant called BaoHaus. Ricker redecorated it himself in a collage of rainbow-colored Thai vinyl albums from a used-record shop in Bangkok.
His second shop is Pok Pok Ny. (In Thai, "Ny"—pronounced "nigh"—means "in the city.") It's on Columbia Street, on the west edge of Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood with handsome brownstones that look like the exterior shots from The Cosby Show. Workers are still putting the place together.
But the unopened shop—cluttered with boxes of papayas, cabbage wedges and roasted peanuts—is currently serving as the prep kitchen for Pok Pok Wing. An employee drives the prepared food across the Manhattan Bridge to Ricker's only open shop. Ricker concedes he'll be lucky if Pok Pok Ny is open by March.
Ricker has already been discovered by Portland expats. During one evening at Pok Pok Wing, a half dozen customers volunteer to the cashier that they knew Ricker's food from Portland.
"My parents live in Northwest Portland," a twentysomething woman says. "I dropped my phone when I found out this was coming here. Now they think I have no reason to visit them."
And Portland has clearly been discovered by New York. Stumptown Coffee now operates a roaster in Red Hook, a half mile from Pok Pok Ny. The Stumptown cafe in the Garment District's Ace Hotel—just like the Portland Ace, but fancier—has Friday-afternoon lines 20 people deep. In March, former Castagna chef Matthew Lightner is opening Altera, a restaurant in Tribeca. The headline of a Grub Street article last September asked, "Is New York About to Become New Portland?"
All of which runs in Ricker's favor. Everything else seems to run against him.
Matt Piacentini, a co-owner of Portland's Ace Hotel restaurant Clyde Common, recently started a New York eatery called the Beagle. He says the Beagle is gaining an industry following ("We're doing extremely well considering none of us is anybody"), but the challenge is immense.
"To put it plainly, there are thousands and thousands of places that are better than you," says Piacentini, who has never met Ricker. "You get absolutely trampled, like a train running over a fly. Right now, everybody's really excited because these legendary chicken wings are coming to town. But how long is it going to be before people say, 'Pok Pok is bullshit. This place in Queens has been doing that for three generations'?"
What Ricker also has going for him is his obsessive nature—and his take on the cuisine of Northern Thailand.
"I never met a guy more driven," says his friend Willy Vlautin, a musician and novelist who worked for Ricker as a house painter in the '90s. "He grew up pretty poor, and I think he wanted to not be that way. He's one of those guys who had to work twice as hard to get where other people were in the first place."
A native of Vermont, Ricker had been cooking since he was 16, working in restaurants in order to make money to ski. Later he got into rock climbing, and took cooking jobs on sailboats so he could climb all around the world.
In 1987, when he was 24, Ricker went to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, where he ate a curry that changed his life. The bowl was filled with hed top, seasonal mushrooms that he remembers "look like puffballs—dark brown, slightly bitter."
He thought Thai food was supposed to be sweet, like the sugary pad kee mao served stateside. But this was a bounty of distinct flavors—bitter and earthy and sour and sweet—combined to make hearty mountain food served as snack-sized bits, often with a the undercurrent of fish-sauce funk. It was seemingly contradictory items like âbeef salad.â It was great.
When Ricker moved to Portland in 1990, he worked as a sous chef under Chris Israel at Zefiro—a training ground for many of Portland's best cooks—and worked as a commercial painter, eventually giving new paint jobs to several restaurants where he'd worked.
But he kept making Northern Thai recipes. His best friend, photographer Adam Levy, liked Thai food, but the kind that most Americans know. "He always used to harsh my buzz, " Levy says. "He knew what I was eating was the insipid honky formulation—Chinese food with a few different ingredients. We'd actually have fights about it."
In 2005, Ricker bought a house on Southeast Division Street, and out front built a wooden shack with a kitchen and to-go window. He maxed out several credit cards and borrowed money from his mother to make payroll.
He rejected the conventional fare—no pad Thai on his menu.
"Think about how alienating Pok Pok could have been," says Kurt Huffman, who later co-opened restaurants Ping and Foster Burger with Ricker. "Nothing you can pronounce. Nothing you recognize. Weird flavors. You don't go out and say, 'Let's open up an Italian place that refuses to serve spaghetti, and everything on the menu's gonna be in Italian.'"
But Pok Pok wasn't off-putting. Actually, it was a food cart before Portland's cart scene got big, and it served finger-licking chicken. People started telling each other immediately: Ricker had been to Thailand, and he'd brought back something out of a dream. "The charcoal-roasted game hen is killer," wrote Oregonian food critic Karen Brooks six months after Pok Pok opened, "full of juiciness and crisp skin, with a tart, garlic-dizzy dipping sauce to kick it higher.â
What saved Ricker were those rotisserie game hens and Ike's wings—a dish named for Ich Truong, an employee who helped perfect the recipe that made Pok Pok famous.
With Ike's wings, Ricker hit upon a trifecta of food cravings: meat, spice and sweetness. The wings are huge: Each one includes the full extension of the bird's appendage—drumstick, flat and end joint—making them far larger than the typical Buffalo wing.
They're marinated in garlic, sugar and fish sauce, tossed in tempura batter, and fried in hot oil. Then they're painted with garlic and a fish-sauce caramel. They play to Portland's love of artisan quality, exotic snobbery and decadent indulgence. They're a recipe for addiction.
The Oregonian named Pok Pok its Restaurant of the Year in 2007. The same year, Food & Wine magazine declared Ike's wings one of the 10 best restaurant dishes in America. Pok Pok has been featured on TV shows Diners, Drive-ins and Dives Unique Eats and The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
A 45-minute wait for a Pok Pok table soon became typical, and Ricker expanded. He opened Whiskey Soda Lounge across Division Street in 2009, serving dried cuttlefish and cocktails made with Thai drinking vinegars.
He also opened Southeast Asian pub-grub restaurant Ping in Chinatown in 2009 with Huffman, and they launched Foster Burger a year later with Sel Gris' Daniel Mondok. There's a second takeout joint, Pok Pok Noi, in the Sabin neighborhood, and Ricker is working on a third Division Street restaurant dedicated solely to the curry-on-rice dishes called khao kaeng.
He has 120 people on his payroll.
Ricker soon found himself acclaimed as one of the nation's best Thai chefs. He has become an evangelist for obscure Northern Thai favorites like laap, a duck dish, and khao soi, a curry-broth and noodle bowl.
"To this date," Ricker says, "the vast majority of the Thai community in Portland believe I have a Thai wife. Either here in the United States or in Thailand, behind the scenes, running all this."
Some bridle at Ricker's presumption. Chawadee Nualkhair, a food journalist based in Thailand, berated him for calling yam samun phrai—lemongrass spicy salad—a Northern Thai dish. She says it's actually from Central Thailand.
"I don't have a problem with any Westerner presenting himself or herself as an authority on Northern Thai cuisine," she says. "But that person—Western or Thai, it doesn't matter—has to be right. It's like if someone is a football commentator and they confuse Ben Roethlisberger with Tom Brady."
In New York's Lower East Side, customers flow in and out of Pok Pok Wing on a Thursday night as Matthew Adams eavesdrops on every conversation at the counter. He knows exactly what he wants to hear.
Adams is Ricker's operations manager, first hired at Ping and running three of his boss's Portland restaurants. He's in New York to supervise Pok Pok Wing's opening weeks. He knows working in Ricker's restaurants is hazardous: In his first year at Ping, Adams gained 20 pounds.
Adams listens as cashier Taylor Warden takes orders.
"Would you like sticky rice?" Warden asks a customer.
Adams pulls him aside later to correct his delivery: "Would you like to order sticky rice?" Otherwise, Adams says, customers might think the rice is free.
Warden hands a mother and daughter at the counter their drinking vinegars—like a tart fruit syrup in soda water—and says, "Stir it a little."
They gave their drinks a light swish with their straws. Adams corrects again: "You want to give it a
This is part of Ricker's plan: close supervision and tight control over every aspect of the Pok Pok meal.
"To be able to come to one of the most difficult cities to open a restaurant, and to do it in two months, that's pretty impressive," Ricker says. "And it's not because of any Herculean strength on my part. Everything we do has been about minimizing or eliminating everything that can go wrong."
For example, take the chilies used in the restaurant's namesake dish, Papaya Pok Pok. The name comes from the sound the chef's mortar on pestle—pok pok, pok pok—as it crushes long beans, tamarind, Thai chili, garlic, fish sauce, palm sugar and peanuts with green papaya shavings.
The heat of the chilies changes seasonally, and they come from a dozen or more places in Asia. That means the dish requires a constant rebalancing of the recipe.
"And the only one who's capable of doing that is Andy," Levy says.
Ricker's dreams are moving beyond the place where that kind of control is possible.
He has a cookbook coming out this year—still untitled—and is retailing the drinking vinegars under the name Som. He wants to open a shop to sell ingredients and equipment—laap spice, steamers, rice baskets—to go with the recipes. He talks of opening Pok Pok Wing outlets across New York, like a Thai version of Shake Shack.
"You could potentially open these all over the city," he says of Pok Pok Wing. "You could have a central commissary that functions as a particle accelerator. This place on the Lower East Side is totally a science experiment."
Yet as Ricker stretches himself further and further, he remains fundamentally alone in understanding his operation. He sold his share of Ping and Foster Burger last year, to solely focus on Pok Pok.
"That's also, I think, why he's so attached to the idea of the wing shack," Huffman says. "It allows you to be excellent. The question is, can he get enough people to help him build this thing as big as he wants?"
Ricker is trying to spread the expertise. He has taken at least six members of his staff to Thailand with him. And among his employees, he inspires fierce loyalty. When Pok Pok threw a Christmas party last year, nearly all of his 120 employees wore temporary tattoos of the illustration that ran with the Bon Appétit article: Ricker riding a fish.
When it comes to Pok Pok, Huffman says of Ricker, "He is the source of truth. The only way to scale that is to have people who work for him who are also a source of truth."
Ricker knows he's got to back away from the kitchen.
"You don't see a lot of old chefs," he says. "I'd like to live to at least 60. There's plenty of people out there who can do this. I know I'm not the only person in the whole world who's interested."
To achieve the national brand he wants, Ricker will have to release control of his cooking. But sometimes it seems like Pok Pok won't let go of him.
Near midnight, Ricker returns to Pok Pok Wing after dealing with problems at the unopened shop in Brooklyn. He and Adams look proudly over the pile of receipts. Adams spots an anomaly. "There's a Portland number on here," he says.
Ricker looks closer at the receipts. The two men reach a realization simultaneously, and start to laugh.
For Pok Pok Wing's first 10 days in business, Ricker has been giving the citizens of New York his personal cellphone number.