You realize that Pok Pok NY is not your typical Thai restaurant from the first sip of water. Infused with pandanus leaf, a fragrant southeast Asian palm-like plant, the table water has a slight, rice-like tinge that is at first off-putting, later surprisingly refreshing. That description could apply on a larger scale to the restaurant as a whole, a just-opened offshoot of chef Andy Ricker’s enormously popular Portland, Oregon eatery.
Spurred on by a smorgasbord of blog buzz (guilty as charged: we ranked it #2 on our most anticipated openings of 2012), the Columbia Street Waterfront restaurant is already a bit of a mob scene. The wait for a table this Wednesday, Pok Pok’s sixth evening in business, was an hour-and-a-half—this for a no-reservations restaurant set a solid seven-block walk from the G train, along a little-traveled avenue on the wrong side of the BQE. The place has about 40 seats, most of them set up in a heated tent behind the building, which is designed to mimic a Thai beach shack, with bamboo walls and hanging greenery. The setup is scenic but a bit annoying—diners have to walk outside the restaurant and back into the front entrance to find the tiny bathroom that is practically inside the busy kitchen; servers take 10 to 15 minutes to return back with drinks.
It’s also worth waiting for, as Pok Pok is a supremely inventive restaurant that’s impossible to compare to your neighborhood Thai take-out joint, or even to Queens’ much-vaunted Sri Pai Pai, which now has legitimate competition for its previously undisputed status as the city’s best Thai eatery. Pok Pok’s signature fish sauce chicken wings are crisped-skin wonders—sweet, salty and garlicky all at the same time, full-flavored and rich, but not nearly as fishy as the name might have you believe. A laap meuang pork salad is an amalgam of unidentified pig parts; mostly smooth and savory ground pork, but a few surprises thrown in the mix, including some particularly rubbery little nickel-sized rings (intestines? sphincters? tripe? Our server wasn’t sure, and could only offer that the chefs use every piece of the pig). Whatever they are, they certainly take some chewing. The mangalitsa pork neck, on the other hand, are tender little slices of sweet-and-spicy joy, grilled over charcoal, glazed in sugar and soy, then covered in hot chiles, lime and coriander. Most dishes are served with boxes of slightly sweet sticky rice. You can opt for a forkful of rice and meat, or roll everything up in any of the various greens that come with.
Despite the emphasis on little-used animal parts, my vegetarian dining companions were equally enthused. The papaya pok pok salad (right) offers extremely thin slices of green papaya doused in tamarind, chili, and lime, served with crushed peanuts, long beans, and cherry tomatoes. Roasted curry paste loans a deep, full flavor to the coconut milk soup, topped by a crispy mound of long yellow noodles.
The bia wun “jelly beer”—bottles of Thai beer frozen and shaken until they become essentially beer slushies—are best left for warmer weather, but the lengthy drink list still offers plenty of excitement, like the shaken vodka-mango-coconut cream “mango Alexander,” and an intensely lime-y gin and tonic made with house-infused kaffir lime gin.
On the dessert side, we weren’t brave enough to try the durian, a pungent southeast Asian fruit with an aroma that has been compared to moldy gym socks. However, the sticky rice topped with salted coconut creme and yellow mango is a delectable sweet and salty combo. The coconut-jackfruit ice cream sandwich was tasty, but I found its presentation—on a sweet hot-dog-bun-esque roll from nearby Red Hook Lobster Pound, more gimmicky than functional. It’s a rare miss at Brooklyn’s most exciting new restaurant.
127 Columbia Street; pokpokny.com