Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My First Year in Lunch

You go somewhere for many reasons. For instance, I'm in New York because of my girlfriend, food, family, immigrants, urbanity, and to entice a friend to move here. Whatever aspirations we lay out for ourselves come together over food, or because of it. May next year bring more of what we want. Before I begin on my personal food highlights, may I leave you with my dim sum greeting. "Let's eat some dumplings, guts, and buns." May y'all get the nibblins' you desire most. Happy Lunch!

Ost Cafe, Moishe's poppy seed strudel
Dessert Del Posto
Cotechino del Posto
Foie at Jean Georges

Fried som tom at Thailand Center Point


Lunch special in Sunset Park


quail at Husk

New Catch at Russ and Daughters

golden russet apples

lunch with Andy at Public

Grandma Slice at Ny Suprema Pizza

3 gorditas for $6 Rancho los Compadres

Chia and pupusa

Ippudo lunch set

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Behind-the-Scenes Kitchen Tour of Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon

Pok Pok opened in Portland, Oregon, in 2005 as a side-of-the-road shack selling a few Thai street food-inspired items, but it didn't stay a secret for very long. In just a year, chef Andy Ricker's to-go window and rotisserie with just a few outdoor benches transformed into a full restaurant in his adjacent home on Division Street. And this was before anyone had ever tasted the Vietnamese fish sauce wings, now a cultish dish.

From the onset, the goal of Pok Pok was to change how people thought about Thai food. When I worked in the kitchen, chef Ricker insisted that it wasn't a Thai restaurant per se, though most of the food served there is Thai. The full restaurant found its legs when the Oregonian named it restaurant of the year in 2007. The crowds have not since diminished.

With so many people waiting for tables, in 2009 Ricker decided to open Whiskey Soda Lounge across the street, a bar and snack spot for Pok Pok diners-to-be or those too hungry to wait. It's also a place to try exciting dishes that might not fly at Pok Pok: think five-spice stewed and fried chitlins or curry brains cooked in banana leaf. After all, you wouldn't want to ruin your appetite before you head across the street, but how could a few snacks hurt! What was once Whiskey Soda Lounge, retained just the name Pok Pok.


As a former cook of the restaurant, I recently visited my old kitchen, which has changed dramatically since I left a little over a year ago.

In the ground floor space, many pots were bubbling away. Kaeng hung leh, the Burmese-influenced sweet northern Thai curry of pork shoulder and belly, cooked alongside peanut sauce and raspberry drinking vinegar. Each cook had plenty of counter space (not the case when I was there) and even better, they didn't have to fight with Iggy, the daytime hot line cook, for the only gas ranges. Carrying 20 quarts of hot liquid down steep backyard stairs was no longer a necessary hazard—everything could just go out the back garage door to the cooler.

Outside the kitchen on the other side of the bar, they have two "bia wun" or "jelly beer" machines. Two plastic barrels made to look like wood, with elephants carved into them, are attached to a base with a motor that makes them spin. Bottles of Singha beer get submerged into water, ice, and salt until they're frozen a few minutes later. Tap the bottom, open the top, insert extra long straw and voila "bia wun" or "jelly beer." The beer goes opaque and slushy, a 22-ounce bottle was great to pass around the shaded back patio.

The jelly beer machine is just one of the many items that chef Ricker has brought back with him from Thailand. He has also lugged back a bird rotisserie, multiple coconut presses, spices (Northern Laap spice and fermented bean discs were stacked to the ceiling) and chiles, and of course the recipes. I remember unloading the new rotisserie and coconut presses from the truck when I worked there. Oof!

After getting the slushy beer demo, I watched kitchen manager Brian Marcum fill bottle after bottle of drinking vinegar. Initially, Andy bought up any drinking vinegar that was available at Portland's Asian markets—now they make most of it themselves. I remember small test batches with strawberries when I was there; the operation has obviously grown since then.


Back in the Whiskey Soda Lounge kitchen, one of the cooks was frying chicken wings. The restaurant makes 1,800 pounds of the wings each week to supply WSL and Pok Pok. That number will likely grow with Pok Pok Noi, the upcoming take-out spot slated to open in North Portland 2011.

They now have a vacuum tumbler to reduce marinating time from 24 hours to one. Instead of carrying the wings upstairs to cut, then downstairs to marinate, then upstairs to fry, then back downstairs to cool (only to return upstairs to freeze) they're all prepped in one place in massive fryers and wheeled to the nearby freezer. How luxurious!

Ricker was actually in Thailand during my visit; he visits often. Five years ago, he had a house with a food stall—now it's a full-blown restaurant, adjacent bar and production kitchen, a downtown Asian pub called Ping, a Pok Pok take-outerie opening soon, a cookbook in the works, and a 2010 James Beard best chef Northwest nomination.

Pok Pok

3226 SE Division Street, Portland OR 97202 (map); 503-232-1387

Whiskey Soda Lounge

3131 SE Division Street, Portland OR 97202 (map); 503-232-0102

Pig head? Check. My pozole verde recipe.


Back Forty's Pozole Verde

Yield: 12


1 half pig head rinsed well, or two jowls (call your butcher ahead of time to order)
2 pig trotters (same deal as above)
4 pounds pork ribs
2 onions, halved
1 head of garlic, halved
2 carrots
2 stalks of celery
2 pounds dried pozole corn (descabezado, with the tip or pedicil removed)
2 1/2 tablespoons cal, slaked lime powder (available at Kalustyan's)
6 jalapeƱos, stems removed and chopped
1 cup hulled pumpkin seeds
10 bibb or romaine lettuce leaves
10 red mustard greens (kale or chard are fine, too)
1 pound tomatillos, husks removed
1 bunch cilantro, roots and stems chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
salt, to taste

Put the half pig head, trotters, and ribs in a large pot and cover with cold water. Over high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer, skimming any foam or scum that appears. Add onions, garlic, carrots and celery, and simmer 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until a knife can go into the meat easily. Remove the meat, strain the stock, and let cool.

Pick the meat, fat, and cartilage from the head and trotters. Rough chop or shred head and trotter, cut ribs (removing bones if you'd like), then set everything aside. (This part can be done up to a week in advance.)

Soak the pozole in a large bowl of water overnight, and drain. Fill a stainless steel pot with 2 quarts water and, over high heat, bring to a boil. Dissolve the cal in the boiling water, and add the pozole corn. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to simmer for about fifteen minutes, or until the corn is yellow and their skins loose. Drain the corn in a colander, and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Rub kernels between hands to remove any remaining skin. Put corn in pot and cover with cold water by three inches. Bring to a gentle simmer, and once corn begins to soften and "flower" or "pop," you may salt and cook it until your desired tenderness (approximately 1 to 2 1/2 hours). Strain, and reserve liquid. (This part can be done a few days in advance.)