No one cooks Thai food like Andy Ricker. This James Beard Award-winning chef gained culinary fame for his flagship, Pok Pok, and a string of other wildly popular establishments in Portland, Ore., where he cooks a style of traditional cuisine that’s rarely found in America. The lines out the door are proof of how popular it is.
Ricker’s first sit-down eatery outside the Pacific Northwest, this unassuming outpost is on a semi-industrial strip of Columbia Street in Brooklyn’s waterfront district. Adding “Ny” to the Pok Pok name has a double meaning, too, standing for its New York location as well as the Thai phrase “in the city.”
Why it’s worth the drive: Pok Pok Ny opened last year to rave reviews: Anthony Bourdain even stopped by for the farewell episode of his food-travel show, “No Reservations,” noting that Ricker serves “simply the best, the tastiest, and the most ‘authentic’…northern Thai flavors I’ve ever had outside of Thailand.” But such praise means that the wait for a table can take hours, especially on weekends. There’s a no-reservation policy, and not just to boost the restaurant’s hipster status. The tiny space can only accommodate 60 diners (with half seated on an outdoor patio). But go early. It took a half-hour just to put our names on the wait list, and a staffer taking down our number was friendly and efficient; she directed us to a hip nearby bar to pass the time, and called us back 40 minutes later, precisely in the window promised. It’s worth the wait for the outstanding food, modest prices and laid-back atmosphere. There are plastic plates and tablecloths, and the backyard area is almost ramshackle, with colorful umbrella tables and a bamboo-covered tent decorated with Christmas lights. That’s part of the charm: The beach-shack vibe is so different from the typical highbrow Manhattan hotspot, you’ll relax immediately. Plus, the menu appeals to the adventurous (fire water spinach, stewed duck leg) and the cautious (baby back ribs), so everyone should go home happy.
What to order: You cannot leave without having Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. End of story. Practically legendary among foodies, this is Ricker’s signature dish: the fresh, plump chicken wings, glazed with palm sugar, fish sauce and garlic, has an unforgettable spicy-sweet flavor. Other specialties are charcoal roasted hen stuffed with lemongrass, pepper and cilantro (kai yaang); spicy papaya salad with tomatoes and long beans; eggplant salad topped with bits of boiled egg, shrimp, pork and prawns (yam makheua yao); Vietnamese catfish marinated in turmeric (cha ca “la vong”); and curry noodle soup (khao soi).
While you’re there: While waiting in line, you’ll likely end up standing in front of Freebird Books a few doors down. It’s worth popping inside: This used bookstore, open only on Saturday and Sunday, specializes in New York history and culture (123 Columbia St., 718-643-8484, www.freebirdbooks.com). After dinner, head about a mile north to Brooklyn Bridge Park (www.brooklynbridgepark.org) for outdoor concerts, movie nights, theatrical performances and more throughout the summer.
Insider tip: Don’t overlook the drinks menu, which offers plenty of unusual libations, including Ricker’s Som line of drinking vinegars. Unlike cooking vinegars, these are more like syrups, in flavors like tamarind, pomegranate, raspberry and pineapple. They can be diluted with soda water for a fizzy, non-alcoholic treat, or mixed with spirits to add a tangy twist. Try the Hunny, a blend of tequila, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, lime and honey drinking vinegar that Bon Appetit magazine recently named as one of 10 great sour cocktails in America.
Details: 127 Columbia St., Brooklyn. Open daily 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. 718-923-9322, www.pokpokny.com. (In the fall, Pok Pok will move down the block to a larger space at 117 Columbia St.; it will be across the street from the Whisky Soda Lounge, a Brooklyn version of Ricker’s popular Portland cocktail bar, set open later this summer.)
— Heather Salerno