More than in any other city, people in New York appear to use each restaurant as a way to broadcast the different sides to their identities, much as one would use a jacket or theater tickets. So you can play the part of the foodie hipster at Roberta’s, or the appearances-obsessed scenester at Acme, or the highly-strung middle-aged yuppie on a blind date at Union Square Cafe. You can negotiate the surprisingly fraught life of a young Upper East Side boozehound at Earl’s Beer and Cheese or bask in the luxuriant faces of hair at … well, anywhere in Brooklyn. New York offers so many choices, each attached to such a dizzying range of glimpses into NY life, that it’s possible to be just about anyone you want, at least for the two hours it takes to eat your meal.
So when someone asks me to go to a Thai restaurant here, I naturally give pause. This is for a variety of reasons. The main one is obvious: I live in Bangkok, yo. Also, I take Thai food personally. It’s hard to make an eater like me forget that I live in Bangkok.
But New York has plenty of places that are game. The truth is, there isn’t a better time than right now to enjoy Asian food in New York. It seems that restaurant-goers are more receptive to different regions (Sichuan) and more idiosyncratic menus that mirror a chef’s personal history or tastes (Red Rooster, Mission Chinese Food). The same is true for Thai, where diners — on the prowl for more authentic food experiences — have moved on from the Great Trifecta: pad Thai, green curry, spicy lemongrass soup.
That is why places like Pure Thai Cookhouse work right now. A place that featured a full-service guaythiew (soup noodle) bar might have had a hard time finding an audience even five years ago; today, the line for dinner snakes out the door, and the people waiting wear the kind of stressed, unhappy look on their faces that only the most successful restauranteurs can boast of. If my yentafo (seafood noodles with fermented tofu) was a little mild and the condiment tray lacked the vitally-important (to Thais) granulated sugar, it was ok — this place actually HAD yentafo and condiment trays, after all. Baby steps.
But where to next? It’s hard to say. After all, a mediocre meal at some Thai place takes extremely valuable real estate (in my stomach) away from, say, a saucer-sized burger at Peter Luger’s, a smoked fish platter at Barney Greengrass, or the delicious brussel sprouts slices at Roberta’s. I decide to enlist the help of the very best critic of Thai food I know, my friend Noy, who found revered NY standard Sripraphai below-par after being served a green curry dotted with broccoli.
I’m thinking “highly eccentric menu” and “personal” interpretations of Asian food using Thai ingredients. That’s surely Kin Shop, the Thai-ish restaurant opened by chefs Harols Dieterle and Alicia Nosenzo. But when confronted with the squid ink and hot sesame oil soup, red leaf and blood orange salad and stir-fried rice flakes with cauliflower and rock shrimp, Noy balks. “Mansai,” she says, using the Thai word for a person who elicits feelings of annoyance, through entirely every fault of their own.
Okay. There’s also relatively new entrant Pig and Khao, which specializes in Southeast Asian cuisine with a particular focus on Thailand and the Philippines. After scanning the menu, it’s the both of us who have the problem: first of all, Pabst Blue Ribbon?! Have lumberjack types moved over onto Clinton St?! And then there’s the “tomato and cucumber salad”, inexplicably saddled with Chinese sausage (“Ajad should be refreshing, not sweet and meaty,” says Noy). And THEN there’s the quail adobo with soy sauce and szechuan peppercorns, which gives me a temporary fit of rage (“That’s all-y’all-look-alike-type fusion,” I say). Moving on.
There’s no way I can ignore Pok Pok. It’s full-service Thai, the way Sripraphai is, but with specialties tailored to the “now” of Thai food in NY. This means the kind of core Isaan food that every Thai food lover loves (the new trifecta: grilled chicken, sticky rice, and the spicy green papaya salad that here is called pok pok), plus the newer crowd favorites like duck larb and khao soi. Sure, a few of the little explanations accompanying some dishes (“Another Singha please. And more sticky rice”) make us both want to gouge our eyes out with our bare hands, but we understand that Andy Ricker is an educator, and some people don’t know that bread is the traditional accompaniment to pork satay.
It’s just too bad that Pok Pok is trapped in the bowels of Deepest Brooklyn, a hard-to-find kingdom protected by viney brambles with razor-sharp thorns and a fire-breathing dragon in a plaid shirt. As much of a pig as I am, I cannot for the life of me traipse 10 blocks from the subway stop to the restaurant in sub-zero cold.
We make a booking for Eleven Madison Park instead.