I arrived at Pok Pok NY about ten minutes before my friends Jess & Garrett, who I was meeting there for dinner. We had all heard stories about how hard it can be to actually get a table there; they don’t take reservations, they don’t seat anyone before the entire party is there, and there’s constantly a line all the way down the block. Well there was no line when I arrived, early on a Monday evening, but the host wouldn’t even take my name until all three of us had arrived. I waited semi-patiently as a few other people arrived: typical Brooklyn hipsters, yes, but also a woman with a few kids fresh out of karate class, and a few middle aged couples. I worried about whether a line would form, and could I stand in that hypothetical line even though my entire party wasn’t there? As Jess & Garrett arrived, another woman approached the host before us. She was meeting a friend but was extremely hungry. Could she be seated, and order food, even though her friend wasn’t there? No she could not. “But I’ll be ordering and eating!” she pleaded. No dice, though she was more than welcome to wait at the affiliated bar on the corner where she could order some hot wings. When I told the host that we had all arrived, she called someone over a wireless headset, made an undecipherable mark on the laminated seating chart in front of her, and directed the three of us up the unremarkable alley alongside the restaurant. Toward the back of the alley was the door to Pok Pok NY’s back garden, protected by the clear plastic hanging strips you see at butcher shops and grocery stores. We pushed through the plastic to find ourselves in the beautiful back yard, where only a handful of the tables were actually occupied. This is dining at Pok Pok NY.
Pok Pok NY, if you haven’t heard of it, is the NYC offshoot of a popular Portland, OR restaurant (simply Pok Pok), and is reputed to have some of the best, most authentic Thai food outside of Thailand itself. Much has been made of the fact that the chef at the center of the Pok Pok empire, Andy Ricker, is a white American man. How could he presume to make upscale Thai food and charge so much for it? And yet everyone who has tried the food agrees that the man lives up to the legend. That’s why the long lines, and the reason that everyone wants to eat there.
The menu has a few items that are vegetarian or even vegan, as well as a one or two that can be made so at the request of the diner. To start I ordered the het paa naam tok (above), a mushroom salad that’s the vegan version of a steak salad that is also on the menu. Large chunks of oyster mushrooms were fried until crispy, served room temperature doused in so much lime juice, chili powder, and soy sauce that my taste buds were practically singing in delight. The combination of textures and flavors (there’s also a surfeit of shallots, mint, lemon grass, cilantro, and toasted rice powder) was incredible. Thus far, Pok Pok NY was living up the hype.
My entree was the khao soi jay, which is not normally vegetarian but can be made so. When I asked for this my server asked me if I was a vegan — the egg noodles can also be omitted. Although I’m not vegan, I appreciated the extra effort that they were willing to make. (The non-veg version, called khao soi kai, is made with chicken.) The khao soi was a curry and coconut broth, with boiled noodles in the soup and crispy fried noodles on top. It came with a plate of garnishes: pickled mustard greens, chopped shallots, and roasted chili paste. Even with all of that stuff, the broth was surprisingly bland. I could taste the coconut, but not much else. A few splashes of the leftover soy/lime from the mushrooms helped improve the flavors immensely.
At $16 each, the dishes were pretty expensive. The mushrooms, though a smaller plate, justified the price. The noodles, sadly, did not. In the end, the mushrooms were so good that I ended up feeling good about my meal at Pok Pok NY. The no reservations policy is an egalitarian one, I suppose, but it also seems like it tips things in the favor of people who have nothing better to do than to stand around and wait. Then again, the fact that they are so willing to serve vegetarians and vegans seems to offset that. I think another trip to Pok Pok NY may be in order.
Pok Pok NY — 127 Columbia St