Every year, Pok Pok's Andy Ricker journeys back to his power source, the streets of Northern Thailand and Bangkok, the fuel for one man's mad quest to recreate the food he loves. Taste buds are retuned. New taste fixations are discovered. His soul is fed, and so are fanatic followers who queue up in Portland and more recently, New York, where Pok Pok rules the roost with authentic eats and the best chicken wings on Earth.
But for Ricker, these seven-week sojourns are also about head space, the vision thing. As he puts it: "Not smelling like fried shallots; not being in the thick of it; the ability to think things through."
Three weeks ago, in Chiang Mai, the guy militant about "getting it right" had a realization: the model for Pok Pok Lat Khao, his upcoming curry house at 3384 SE Division, didn't pan out. Sixty seats and room for another 100 bodies outdoors adds up to a lot of fresh-pressed coconut milk.
"Just the amount of work making curry paste would be insane," says Ricker. "Finding enough fresh or fresh-frozen grated coconut could be a problem. We've had supply problems just for khao soi at Pok Pok. Adding eight curries a day to the coconut production is significant. I can't be running around the city looking for every f-ing package of coconut meat."
That's clarity. Lat Khao is dead. At least for now, for this space.
Instead, Ricker is opening a Thai noodle house, his longtime dream. Sen Yai ("Big Noodle") will rise this spring as a full service, sit-down eatery open all day, all week. Ricker envisions 15 to 18 noodles at any given time, soup noodles to dry to stir-fried. What he's excited about: "A new horizon of possibilities, noodles not typically found in Thai restaurants in America."
Noodles are the focus, but like all Ricker joints, a full bar of well-chosen drinks will flow. Also in the mix are "esoteric non-alcoholic drinks," the likes of dried lam yai, artichoke/sugarcane, and other sips appropriate for this style of eating.
Sen Yai's breakfast will tap another Ricker passion: Thai breakfast rituals. That means sipping Thai coffee, reading the paper, and digging into the comforts of jok (rice porridge) and patanko, unsweetened "crullers" dunked in coffee or jok.
With Sen Yai's opening comes a Pok Pok menu shift: say goodbye to separate menus and dishes for lunch, dinner, and limited late-afternoon options. Just one menu only, lunch through dinner. Despair not. Most lunch-only dishes will migrate to Sen Yai's lunch list, from crab fried rice to phat si ew. Two Pok Pok lunch legends will live on: khao soi (curry noodle soup) and khao man som tam (coconut rice with sweet shredded pork and papaya salad). The option to eat them all day is welcome, and meant to address diner frustrations—for us and for Pok Pok. There's nothing like facing a customer denied a taste of khao man som tam in the dark of night.
By any measure, Ricker is having a stellar moment. His climb into the pantheon of New York cooks continues. Pok Pok landed on every major "Best of" restaurant list in 2012 and notched the No. 8 slot on Bon Appetit's "20 Most Important Restaurants in America." Meanwhile, a Big Apple branch of Portland's Whiskey Soda Lounge this spring will surely unleash a "Thai drinking foods" craze. Come late October, Pok Pok, the cookbook, lands with great anticipation.
Yet Ricker says Sen Yai is as exciting as anything he's doing. Will New York be next for the Ricker noodle house? "We'll see how it works. Maybe it will be a template for other markets. But I'm doing this for Portland."
Andy Ricker is profiled in Karen Brooks's recent book on Portland's food scene, The Mighty Gastropolis (Chronicle Books, 2012).