In September, Sin City hits the culinary jackpot, when Pok Pok Wing and Lardo—outposts of two of Portland’s most beloved microchains—open as part of Las Vegas’s Block 16 Urban Eatery & Bar in the Cosmopolitan hotel and casino. The project, which also taps small operations like Nashville’s Hattie B’s Hot Chicken and New York mezcal bar Ghost Donkey, is the city’s first crack at a fancy, high-end food hall—a chance to mesh Vegas’s glitz with the hip, fast-casual service on which Portland’s current food scene was built.
But for Pok Pok chef-founder Andy Ricker, the project is a bit more personal: a test case to see if Pok Pok can be Pok Pok without him. Instead of running the Vegas spot, he’s licensed the counter-service concept Pok Pok Wing to the crew at the Cosmo—a first for the quality-obsessed chef.
“We’ll help, but we won’t manage this Pok Pok Wing,” says Ricker. “Which is ... awesome.”
It turns out building your name on rigorously authentic Northern Thai fare is exhausting. Though the chef’s five Portland eateries are successful, he’s found his New York and LA restaurants, both current and shuttered, tough going. One hurdle? Recipes at his sit-down spots are so notoriously complicated that management often needs to be on site to keep dishes consistent. (“It’s a fucking nightmare,” says Ricker.) After six years, the chef says he and his team still “constantly” fly out to Pok Pok NY in Brooklyn to troubleshoot kitchen issues. (Editor's note: On August 13, Ricker announced that Pok Pok NY will close in early September.)
So Ricker dreamed up Pok Pok Wing, a streamlined counter service spot laser-focused on cranking out the restaurant’s hallowed Ike’s fish sauce chicken wings. Ricker opened and closed the first Wing in NYC in 2011; it popped up as a PDX airport cart in 2014, and, finally, roosted on SE Milwaukie Avenue in 2016, where it fries up 700 pounds of wings a week.
“To maintain our business level, we need to expand,” Ricker says. “The whole idea is places where I don’t have to be there all the time looking over their shoulder.”
When the Cosmopolitan approached Ricker, it already boasted restaurants from David Chang and José Andrés as well as outposts of NY’s Milk Bar and LA’s Eggslut. The chef saw it as a challenge to take the Wing model a step further. Over the course of 2018, Ricker and his team shared recipes and specs as well as trained Block 16 staff. But, come opening day, it’s all up to the crew at the Cosmo to make it work.
If Pok Pok Wing Vegas can survive the crushing daily grind of the Strip, where Cosmo staff anticipate 100,000 to 125,000 diners to chow at Block 16 a month—Ricker thinks it could potentially fly anywhere. Think Wing outposts in Vancouver, Washington, and Corvallis, which the Portland team could run with minimal supervision, or licensed Wing outlets with outside owners in, say, a Chicago or Detroit food hall. (No, Ricker stresses, do not expect to see Pok Pok Wing at a mall near you.)
Las Vegas is a crucible for Ricker’s ability to create a truly lean, mean (functional) wing machine. “The way we’ve got [Wing] set up, it’s gonna be tough for them to screw it up too bad,” he jokes. “Then again, talk to me six months from now.”