The smell of roasted chicken, lemongrass, and coconut curry soup wafts through the crisp December air as I approach Pok Pok. I came here a week ago for a delicious introduction to Thai street food, and now I'm back to learn more.
"I went to Thailand for the first time in 1988; I spent three months there and fell in love with the place," says Andy Ricker, the owner. "I went back and stayed with some friends who were living in Chiang Mai. They introduced me to a whole new world of Thai food I hadn't had access to before. I've visited there eight or nine consecutive years since then—especially in the northeastern region called Isaan, where a lot of the food I'm doing comes from."
One of Ricker's specialties at Pok Pok is a roasted game hen stuffed with lemongrass and garlic, which I had the opportunity to try. The meat is full-flavored, tender, and subtly spiced.
"It's called Kai Yaang, which is an Isaan-style chicken. I brought a rotisserie back from Thailand specifically for this. I first saw this machine being used up in Chiang Mai at a place called S.P. Chicken. I went and hung out with the guy, and he showed me how to modify the rotisserie."
I asked Ricker what makes Pok Pok different from the many Thai restaurants in town.
"The majority of the food in your average Thai restaurant is Central Thai in origin. Although it's definitely Thai, a lot of it is based on Chinese cooking—stuff that's cooked in woks, stir-fried, is basically Chinese. What I'm doing is primarily Northern and Northeastern. So I'm not doing any of the typical curries that you find around here—pad Thai, stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts, that kind of thing. This is more like street food. You walk down the street in any city in Thailand, you're gonna find Kai Yaang."
A customer approaches, providing me with an opportunity to watch Ricker at work. He walks over to a large mortar and pestle.
"The name Pok Pok is an onomatopoeia for the sound the mortar and pestle makes when you're preparing papaya salad, which is one of the most popular dishes in Thailand." He demonstrates, tossing fresh ingredients into the mortar. "You start with some garlic, some chiles, add some palm sugar..."
Pok pok pok pok.
"... And then you just add the rest of the ingredients: papaya, longbean, tomato, peanuts, dried shrimp, and the dressing, which is fish sauce, lime juice, and tamarind." The salad is served cold, but the flavor comes alive with spices and the heat of the chiles.
At the end of our conversation, it becomes obvious that Ricker's knowledge of Thai cuisine is only matched by his passion for the food.
"There's no food that I like better. There's just so much variety. You'd never know it from eating at a Thai restaurant here, because you see the same 20 dishes at every restaurant: In Thailand there are dozens and dozens of different styles of cooking noodles alone, and hundreds of different varieties of soup—it's just mind blowing. If you're into food, and you're adventurous, Thailand can be an incredible experience."
And the same goes for Pok Pok.