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

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