Pok Pok LA
A year ago, Pok Pok Phat Thai — the brainchild of America’s culinary darling Andy Ricker — opened in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza. Ricker, born in North Carolina, spent much of his childhood and nomadic early adulthood traveling the country and world. In November, he opened Pok Pok LA: his second, much larger LA iteration in Mandarin Plaza just down the road.
“One of the main reasons we opened up the little noodle shop was to plant a flag, get used to the way things work in the city, and see what the people like and how we fit into the landscape,” said Ricker. “The amount of things that you have to figure out in a new restaurant is mind-boggling,” he said, despite already possessing over 35 years in the industry and very successful Pok Pok restaurants in Portland and New York.
Ricker identified Chinatown and subsequently the Mandarin Plaza location while traveling a few years ago. “I felt it was the right place and the right time for us,” he said, citing the exciting restaurant scene Downtown, weather, and proximity to great produce as prominent reasons for the newest Pok Pok eatery.
As anchor tenants of Mandarin Plaza, a lot of expectations rest on Ricker’s shoulders, but restaurants are risky endeavors, and there are no guarantees. “If it all goes tits up, at least [the landlords] have a nicely refurbished restaurant space and re-painted plaza,” Ricker laughs. If Pok Pok LA is anywhere near as popular as his awardwinning Portland creations or Michelin-starred New York space, the landlords won’t need to concern themselves with refurbishing.
For the everyday Pad Thai junkie (Phat, Phad, and Pad Thai are all the same thing), you’re out of luck. But head down the road to Pok Pok Phat Thai for that, you’re still on the right team. At Pok Pok LA’s phenomenal indoor-outdoor, upstairs-downstairs, bar and restaurant space, the menu has some classic central-Thai dishes, but specializes in northern Thai. The beef-shin stew is perfect on rare wintery days and, like much of the menu, is full of the classically aromatic and flavorful notes of northern Thailand.
The laab dish is a house favorite, typically served with sticky rice and a side dish of herbs and raw vegetables, essential in balancing the protein, complimenting the flavors, and helping with digestion. Ironically, Pok Pok might actually be most well known for their spicy, smoky Vietnamese fish-sauce wings and Tamarin Whiskey Sour. The sticky rice, presented traditionally in a small wooden container and wrapped in plastic, is picked and ripped at with fingers, then re-covered throughout the meal to keep warm. Everything is presented in an incredibly appealing way. “We don’t do hipster food though,” says Ricker.
“We’re a specific regional food and we try to use local ingredients whenever we can because that’s what makes it the way Thai people do things.” Thai cuisine is also very seasonal, so Ricker is looking forward to the summer, when Southern California produces lots of the fresh bamboo shoots and hearts of palm, which will inevitably find their way into many of the dishes. Northern Thai food is eaten with fingers and the spoon and fork as utensils of choice. “I have spent the vast majority of my adult life thinking about [Thai food], studying it, and writing about it,” laughs Ricker while explaining traditional eating habits. His rules are pretty lax though. “However you want to do it,” he concludes. “Whatever you want to do, do that. . .”