Chef Andy Ricker Has Always Been Destined for Greatness
The first line of my first review of Andy Ricker's Portland restaurant, Pok Pok in 2006: "You think you know Thai food, but you don't." It was true then, and it's true now. But I already knew people would surely flock to his doors like a methadone...
I first tasted the Creamsicle in 1997 at a Portland bar called Saucebox. Two sips in, the Earth shifted its axis, and a lifetime of ice cream trucks recombusted in a cocktail that drove straight to the brain. I asked the bartender, an itinerant backpacker named Andy Ricker, if he would kindly share his recipe in my upcoming book, Atomic Cocktails. Weeks later, instructions arrived, formulated like calculus down to the suggestion of elongated vanilla bean swizzle sticks, the perfume of which grabbed you at the throat.
A year later, I served the drink at Tales of the Cocktail, the annual booze think tank in New Orleans. People sucked it down like it was the last drink before the hour of annihilation. I didn't see him again until late 2005, when he poked his head out of a strange and powerful vision—an uncompromising Thai food shack called Pok Pok, which he erected, nail by nail, on his front lawn. But I already knew everything I needed to know about Andy Ricker. He was meticulous and driven, with a gift for "taste." People would surely flock to his doors like a methadone clinic.
The first line of my first review of Pok Pok in 2006: "You think you know Thai food, but you don't." It was true then, and it's true now.
After years of dumbed-down menus, Pok Pok's dishes came on like a whiff of truth serum. There were canopies of herbs, heat bombs where you didn't expect them (Thai fruit salad), and more funk than a James Brown record. There were notions about the soul of a dish. We abandoned chopsticks for spoons (Thailand's main mode of cutlery). We learned to honor the absolute authority of rice, not just clumps for dumping on sauces but different types for different dishes, all carefully simmered so each moist grain stands defiantly alone.
Once you tasted it, something happens. It's infectious and contagious, and there's no cure, no going back.
Pok Pok served no color-coded curries, no pick your protein, no "Do you want that mild, medium, or hot?" Just one man's mad determination to transport us to his haunts in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, the night stalls and side woks, the end-of-the-road huts where the raw and the cooked metamorphosed into a world of crazy eating, the best you can imagine, but rarely found in America. It gripped him more than 20 years ago, and he'd been trekking back to find it ever since, distilling his journeys into a personal playlist of addictions and obsessions, served pure and true. Once you tasted it, something happens. It's infectious and contagious, and there's no cure, no going back.
I was fascinated. Not just the food, but Ricker's indoor/outdoor world of Thai rock and twinkling Christmas lights, the sense that of stumbling onto one of those magical, clandestine spots two blocks off the main street in Bangkok, where all the locals are eating at midnight. It was a remarkable vision of elsewhere, reimagined in a Portland neighborhood. But Pok Pok also embodied something else, a new food movement taking root in a polite farm-to-table town: food-first, come as you are, I did it my way attitude.
In 2007, I named Pok Pok "Restaurant of the Year" at the daily paper, The Oregonian, when diners equated "best restaurant" with white tablecloths and pinot noirs, not elbow-to-elbow eating in a fever dream soaked in tamarind whiskey sours and drinking vinegars.
It was a remarkable vision of elsewhere, reimagined in a Portland neighborhood. But Pok Pok also embodied something else, a new food movement taking root in a polite farm-to-table town: food-first, come as you are, I did it my way attitude.
Of course, Andy Ricker is no longer a local secret. Diners now chomp down the famed fish-sauce chicken wings at a clip of 4,000 pounds a week. In 2012, New York greeted him—and his Pok Pok outposts—like a conquering hero. Bloggers track his every move, and even the The New York Times writes more about Ricker than Afghanistan. Meanwhile, The Whiskey Soda Lounge is a hit in both cities, with spinning Shivas, Thai pub snacks, and cocktails fizzing with makrut lime and celery drinking vinegar. It's a world away from the life of a Creamsicle.
At this point, you expect to find him on a beach in Phukeh, kicking back while his chicken wings spiral down to three-steps from awful. But that would kill him, dishonor the people and places he loves, and suggest the quest is over. Instead, we're still at the beginning. FARANG: The Story of Chef Andy Ricker tracks the next chapter, the opening of Portland's Sen Yai, a longtime dream devoted to Thai noodles and the subject of his next cookbook. No one said it would be easy, a project sweetly captured in this intimate documentary. Months after it opened, Sen Yai cracked my Best Restaurants 2013 list in Portland Monthly.
Andy Ricker didn't set out to create a foodie's paradise. He just wanted to share the food he loves, to help us understand why he keeps going back to the Asian street to wander, study and discover. Mission accomplished.
Karen Brooks is food editor & critic at Portland Monthly magazine. An essay on Andy Ricker appears in her ninth book, The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland (Chronicle Books, 2012, with Gideon Bosker and Teri Gelber).