Not long ago, I was working in northeastern Thailand and so, thinking I was pretty hot stuff, I was skeptical of the restaurant’s authenticity. One look at the menu proved me wrong—the dishes are painstakingly loyal to northern and northeastern Thai cooking traditions. But for someone who loves Thai food and eating adventurously, I remember a lot of food scaring the life out of me in Thailand. I wondered, if his restaurants are such massive successes, diners of all types and tastes must like them—so how true to the execution of these dishes can Ricker be without intimidating his customers?
After tasting his food, it’s clear he's not just an excellent chef, but also a passionate advocate of Thai culture. His food walks a line between authenticity and classic flavors. For starters, his “Papaya Pok Pok” som tam—the green papaya salad that is a staple at so many Thai meals—balances the mix of heat, tang, sweetness and saltiness that makes it such a favorite. But he keeps his American diners in the loop with some toned-down spice that allows the bright flavor of the papaya to stand out. He’s also brave enough to offer plaa raa (fermented fish sauce) and salted crab with the salad, options that are forbidding even to many Thais. It’s to his credit, this showcase of the range of flavors in Thai cuisine that go beyond generic pad thai, basil chicken and green curry.
The Kaeng Hung Leh, which sometimes intimidated me at Thai markets, was rich, sweet, and tender without sacrificing the authenticity of its curry flavoring. Both laap dishes are not to be missed, particularly the Da Chom Laap Meuang, which has an herbal, earthy flavor that beats any laap I've tried in New York.
Dinner at Pok Pok felt like stepping into a street-side restaurant outside Chiang Mai. The decoration is quaint, tables are cozy; even the flavored water sipped from a tin cup sent me time traveling to a rural noodle shop where I thought I was drinking rice-water (it’s pandan-flavored, and yeah, it’s ok to review a restaurant’s water). Family-style food comes out as the dishes are finished. You sit down and enjoy your dining-mates’ conversation while a steady stream of dishes comes to the table. These kinds of small touches make for an engaging, friendly experience, not just of Thai food but of the social feel dining has in day-to-day Thailand. The downside may be the high(ish) price, but you’re paying for stunning flavor, a brief experience of northern Thailand and a chance to get some true, and accessible, regional Thai cooking.