Platt on Pok Pok Ny and Mission Chinese Food
Can we go home now?” asked Ms. Platt for the second or possibly third time as we stood in the little concrete-walled garden in the back of Andy Ricker’s extravagantly praised, perpetually oversubscribed Thai restaurant Pok Pok Ny, waiting for a table to clear. Singha-beer umbrellas were set up outside, and on this hot, semi-tropical Brooklyn evening, the trees were strung with lights, just like in a little garden restaurant in the provinces of Thailand or Vietnam. We’d been told our wait for a table would be an hour, but that was an hour and a half ago. All around us, the rabble of hipsters, Thai-food freaks, and assorted Manhattan culinary thrill seekers sat patiently, like Western tourists in Bangkok waiting for a bus to the beach. One guy carried a guitar. A woman wore a sarong and dandled a baby on one knee. When my wife gave me another mournful look, I shrugged my shoulders. “Welcome to the No-Reservations Generation,” I said.
Once we were finally seated inside the boisterously snug restaurant, however, the spirits of our bedraggled dining party lifted considerably. Ricker comes from Portland, Oregon (where the original Pok Pok is located), and he has a convert’s zeal for re-creating the more or less exact mood and feel of the kind of place you’ll find recommended in the tattered pages of an old Thailand Rough Guide. Jingly Thai ballads play over the speaker system, and when you ask for a glass of water, it’s poured into a frosty metal cup. We ordered some crackly shrimp chips and a platter of sticky, fish-sauce-slathered chicken wings and ate them in a happy lather until they were gone. Next came a subtle street dish called hoi thawt, made with fresh mussels tossed with bean sprouts, garlic chives, bits of egg, and threads of delicately made crêpe. Ms. Platt took one bite and then another. “That’s probably the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” she said.
The regional Thai food at Pok Pok (Thai slang for “mortar and pestle”) is served on the kind of bright plastic and metal plates that you find in street markets all over Asia, and the best dishes have the spontaneous, vividly flavored quality that you find in great home cooking. I’m thinking of the cool, smoky eggplant salad (yam makheua yao), and the fiery minced-pork laap, which comes, according to the exhaustively detailed, McSweeney’s-style menu, from “a friend’s father from the village Saulang Nai, near Chiang Mai.” There’s an excellent roast-catfish laap, too (laap plaa duuk yaang isaan), and if you enjoy rib-sticking country-style dishes, I suggest you call for a crock of kaeng hung leh (soft chunks of curried, caramelized pork belly and shoulder) and the plump, charcoal-roasted whole chicken kai yaang, which comes with tamarind and sweet-and-sour chili sauces for dipping.
Because you’re not really in Thailand, after all, you can wash this grub down with an exhaustive selection of Brooklyn-style mixologist cocktails (try the deceptively lethal Lord Bergamot, made with vodka infused with Earl Grey tea). For a real in-country experience, however, order that Thai specialty called jelly beer, which is Singha frozen in the bottle into a kind of slushy and served with a tall plastic straw. This refreshingly foamy summer drink will help alleviate your chile-pepper coma and set the stage for Ricker’s faithfully rendered “sweets,” like sankhaya durian (a custard spiked with the funky essence of that musky, notoriously addictive fruit), and the seasonal summer delicacy khao niaw mamuang, which is made here, down by the Brooklyn docks, as it is in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, with cooling slices of yellow mango, sticky rice soaked in a refreshingly salty coconut cream, and the faintest dusting of sesame seeds.
Members of the No-Reservations Generation are also out in force, these days, at Mission Chinese Food, the new Lower East Side branch of the Korean-American chef Danny Bowien’s extravagantly praised neo-Sichuan restaurant in San Francisco. The space, on Orchard Street, is designed like a classic low-rent takeout joint. There’s a bare-bones carryout counter up front, with great glowing photos of Bowien’s meaty, David Chang-influenced creations (broccoli beef cheek, thrice-cooked bacon, stir-fried pork jowl) lit up on a plastic “light box” display. The dining room, which you get to by walking through a narrow passageway past the appropriately dingy kitchen, is about the size of a large toolshed and features a billowing red-and-gold Chinese dragon hung from the ceiling. Chang-style rock ballads blare from the speakers even during lunchtime hours, and if you go for dinner, the wait for a table can take two hours or more.
Eaten separately, or in tiny doses, Bowien’s antic, umami-bomb creations have a certain gut-busting charm. But with a handful of exceptions (tea-smoked eel rolls, lamb-cheek dumplings, the smoky thrice-cooked bacon, a deliciously restorative salted pepper broth with pumpkin and wild pepper leaves), the one-note, meat-centric focus on Sichuan cuisine sent my fellow diners and me into a peppery, protein-induced death spiral from which there was little relief or escape. That silky, normally subtle Sichuan specialty, ma po tofu, is muffled here in a great burgerlike mound of ground pork. The stir-fried pork jowls are notable as far as pork jowls go, but after an exhausted bite or two, I found myself rooting around for the fat pink radishes that accompanied them. In the Chang tradition, there are no desserts, although chances are you’ll be so bloated with overspiced pork and offal products that you won’t really care.
Pok Pok Ny
127 Columbia St., nr. Kane St., Columbia Street Waterfront District; 718-923-9322
Hours: Dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. daily.
Prices: $8.50 to $20.
Ideal Meal: Ike’s Vietnamese fish-sauce wings; hoi thawt or smoked-eggplant salad; Northern Thai pork belly and shoulder curry, roasted chicken or pork laap; mango with sticky rice, jelly beer.
Note: Pok Pok Ny is now open seven days a week, which may (or may not) lessen the crush for tables.
Scratchpad: Long lines be damned: One star for atmosphere, and another two for the uncannily faithful regional Thai cooking.
Mission Chinese Food
154 Orchard St., nr. Rivington St.; 212-529-8800
Hours: Dinner Thursday through Tuesday 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Lunch Friday through Tuesday noon to 2 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $4 to $13; entrées, $10 to $15.
Ideal Meal: Tea-smoked eel rolls, lamb-cheek dumplings in red oil, thrice-cooked bacon, wild pepper leaves in salted chile broth.
Note: Free beer is served to the throngs waiting for a table at dinner time, but the best time to dine without a wait is at lunch.
Scratchpad: Half a star for ingenuity and another half for the first two or three tantalizing bites of thrice-cooked bacon, before the food coma sets in.
This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.