Whenever I ball up sticky rice and dip it into the liquid pooled in the bottom of my papaya salad, the waitress usually asks whether I’ve been to Thailand. My response: “No, just Queens.” Unlike me Andy Ricker, the Portland-based chef behind the Pok Pok empire has been to both. He first got into Thai food by traveling Thailand in the 1980s. His Pok Pok Ny is one of the few reasons that I will trek to Brooklyn. He was kind enough to answer Seven Questions.
How often do you eat Thai food?
Every day when I am at work, every day when I am in Thailand and seldom otherwise.
Have you ever eaten Thai silkworms? I found them to be terrible, mealy and musty!
Yeah, I have tasted most of the grubs and insects that Thais eat. Those things are subsistence foods that some people have gotten used to and developed a taste for, but are not and should not be taken for a dish found commonly on the Thai table. Red ant eggs and bee larvae are a different story though: delicious!
We’re in agreement on those red ant eggs. I’ll have to add bee larvae to the list. Tell me, where’d you learn to use chopsticks?
I learned to eat with chopsticks at a very young age. My mom and stepdad used to take me to Chinese restaurants, and they showed me how.
What’s your favorite way to eat bone marrow?
With chopsticks. For example when I eat bun bo hue, the pork shank has marrow in it, I poke it out with a chopstick.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the U.S.?
Right now: HA & VL in Portland; Mission Chinese in New York City; Husk in Charleston
How do you feel about the concept of ordering food “Thai spicy” in a restaurant? My experience in Queens has been that it’s just too damn hot, almost as if the kitchen has something to prove.
Au contraire, thats because they often simply chuck in a shitload of crushed dry chilies to satisfy the farang’s need to prove something to themselves or their friends. Thai cooks aren’t out to prove anything to you, they know how the food is supposed to taste, according to their upbringing. They’re just being accommodating.
Anyway, this whole idea is wrong on so many levels, and emblematic of us Westerners having a very skewed idea of what Thai food is and how it is eaten in Thailand.
First of all, not all Thai food is spicy, not by a long shot. Certain dishes are inherently spicy because of cooking traditions and regional preferences as well as flavor balance. For instance, the Southern Thai curry kaeng tai plaa (Sripraphai makes a good version of this) is typically very hot, a little bit bitter, not sweet at all and very fishy tasting. To order kaeng tai plaa “mild” and “sweet” “with tofu” would throw all the rest of the flavors out of balance and make a mockery of the original concept, which in the right hands can be an absolutely amazing dish. Similarly, the central Thai classic kaeng jeut (literally “bland soup”) has no heat whatsoever, except perhaps a bit of white pepper. To order it “extra spicy” would make absolutely no sense at all, like ordering lasagna at an Italian restaurant “extra sweet.” Actually, if you were to order it “Thai spicy”, it should be delivered to you mild, smell what I’m cooking here?
Second, not all Thai people like to eat spicy food (and by “spicy” I am referring to chile-hot, which is not the same thing as spicy in Thai culinary tradition). I have many friends in Thailand who are more fearful of hot foods than Americans typically are.
Third, there is no standard for chile-hot so the whole “star” system in use at many restaurants has no real meaning; “Spicy” is such a subjective thing from person to person as to be impossible to codify. Typically, the Thai table has condiments on it (fish sauce and Thai chilies, crushed dry chilies, fresh herbs, aromatics, etc. depending on the type of food you are eating) for diners to adjust the flavors themselves.
Do you have a favorite Thai restaurant in Queens?
I like Ayada. Her khao kha muu [stewed pork leg over rice] is really good.
I appreciate the answer regarding spicy food and what he is trying to convey, but it gets no closer to solving the issue of how to order spicy food from restaurants in America where the cuisine has SOME spicy food tradition. I like spicy food, but how do I get Thai food, Indian, or Sichuan, etc. appropriately spiced? If you request the spice level “how it’s supposed to be” you are ignored and given something bland. If you request “thai spicy” someone dumps chili peppers in at the end and you get something inedible and no more faithful to the original. The only solution I have is to spread the word on those places tht are willing to engage you and believe you when you say you’d like it cooked true to the original cuisine, or when it doubt, go for the second spiciest level.
For ordering at an American Thai restaurant you can try asking for them to “Tham Thai Thai noi khrap (if you are a man)/kha (if you are a woman)”, meaning “please make it as if you were making it for a Thai person”, more or less. Of course, this may have little or no impact on what you actually get, but it’s worth a try. A better solution is to simply order the dish mild and adjust the heat yourself with table condiments. Most Central Thai dishes (which make up the vast majority of dishes on American Thai menus) can be adjusted for heat nicely with phrik naam plaa (fresh Thai chilies in fish sauce; many American Thai restaurants do not have this on hand but will make it for you if you ask) or phrik phon (ground dry chilies). Squirting a shitload of Sri Racha (especially Rooster brand, as it is Vietnamese made in California and tastes entirely unlike the original Sri Racha from Thailand) on everything is not recommended if you want to preserve any of the original flavor…but it can be delicious anyway! Laew tae khun khrap (up to you).
I will have to try that Andy!
Heck, we even have this problem in Thailand, based on our exterior!
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I wasn’t expecting it, but I really appreciate the response! It was me mostly just complaining to the gods, but thanks for the thoughtful answer. Loved Pok Pok since back in my Portland days. I was living in a house over behind the Space Room when it opened and remember it blowing me away way back when. Hopefully I get to make it down to Brooklyn from Queens sometime soon.