Condé Nast Traveler: Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker On How to Order Thai Food

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Courtesy Andy Ricker James Beard Award winner Andy Ricker.

Courtesy Andy Ricker
James Beard Award winner Andy Ricker.

Hint: don’t just get the papaya salad.

Andy Ricker brought authentic, spicy, street-style Thai food to North America with his perpetually buzzing Pok Pok restaurants in Portland, Brooklyn (which boasts a Michelin star), and, as of late 2015, Los Angeles. He’s currently at work on a pair of books—one about Thai noodle dishes, the other about Thai drinking culture—and just launched a line of Thai-style charcoal, Thaan. He spoke with Condé Nast Traveler about where to get good Thai food both at home and abroad, some spoilers on the books, and the places he always goes back to.

You’re in Chiang Mai as we speak, and spend about three months there every year. What keeps you going back to that specific city?

It’s still got the good things I remember from the old days. When I first came in 1992, I stayed with a friend behind CMU [Chiang Mai University] on this country lane that was pretty quiet. Now it’s an insane row of shops and restaurants and 5-8 story-high dorms, hotels, condo-type places. The development is going along at a pretty crushing pace, which I have mixed feelings about. A lot more traffic, a lot more tourists. But you can still drive down the road and find an incredible larb restaurant, with people cooking outside on a grill. The same type of food that’s been around for a long time. The temples are getting busier and more focused on collecting money to grow bigger, but they’re still old, beautiful temples. You still run into the old folks and a friendly vibe remains. The people in the North are a friendly bunch, and they’re playful. You go to the market and it’s still a fun place to be.

What is your second favorite Thai city?

I really like Lampang, which isn’t that far from Chiang Mai. It’s very old, and at one time was a center of culture and commerce. It’s a beautiful place with a really great food culture, some lovely old shophouse architecture, wooden buildings that have been preserved, and shady streets. Also, some of the most important temples in the north. It’s great.

What should first-time visitors to Thailand know about ordering street food, especially if they’re picky or have nervous tummies?

Basically, Thai people also have stomachs: their physiology is the same as ours, and Thais get sick, too. So make sure to go somewhere there are a lot of people eating, because that’s a good sign the food is good and it’s a healthy place. You actually have a better chance of monitoring how clean and how good the food is eating in streetside restaurants, where people are cooking in front of you. I’ve had what I think were intestinal issues from eating in a hotel restaurant, because it’s behind closed doors and you have no idea what’s happening back there. At a street stall, if you see a line of people waiting to eat and they have a relatively clean setup and are going through food quickly, you can feel pretty assured that you’ll have a good time and not get sick.

But what about food poisoning?

The thing is, people aren’t that educated about how they get food poisoning. They randomly decide, oh, that place got me sick, when they actually have no idea. The only way you know for sure is to pump your stomach and take a culture of what’s in there. Other than that, you’re just guessing. You could’ve gotten a stomach virus from touching something. If you’re going to deny yourself eating some of the world’s greatest cuisine because you’re worried about having to shit a few extra times a day, you’re really missing out.

If I can’t get to Thailand, what should I try to order from my local Thai restaurant that isn’t just Pad Thai or papaya salad?

It really depends on the type of restaurant. In Thailand, most restaurants specialize in a certain kind of regional Thai cuisine or number of dishes. What happens in the west often is they also offer a whole bunch of other things to appeal to the broadest audience they possibly can. For instance, in L.A., there’s a place called Love To Eat Bistro and they have the typical Thai menu, but also a bunch of southern Thai stuff, which is what they specialize in. That’s what the Thai people order when they go, and that’s what you should order. If Thai people are going to this one place known for a particular dish or cuisine, that’s what you should go there for. Order that specialty.

Have you been to any cities in North America where you were shocked to find a genuinely good Thai restaurant?

No. To me, there’s very tasty Thai food to be had almost anywhere if you know what and how to order. The most important thing to do is try and convince whoever you are ordering from that you’re willing to eat anything. The general consensus is, Americans can’t handle funk and heat, and there are certain recipes you can’t fake your way through. For instance, if they have khao kluk kapi, it’s rice mixed with shrimp paste and various other things like mackerel, egg, and sweet pork. Now, rice mixed with shrimp paste you can’t make without putting shrimp paste in! So if you order it, you’re going to get some form of real flavor and people make it in varying degrees of aplomb, but you can’t fake it with that dish.

Do you plan to open Pok Pok locations in more cities?

At the moment I’m not looking to open another restaurant in the U.S. The atmosphere there is extremely uncertain, and we have our hands full getting things on track in L.A.. It would be suicidal for me to open another before L.A. is stable.

You have two more books on tap, due in 2017 and 2018 respectively. What can you tell us about them?

It’s about the drinking culture of Thailand and how food is so interwoven with it. We’ll do a really cool chapter on how to make Lao Khao, distilled rice whiskey that’s essentially the basis of drinking culture in Thailand. As a tourist you see beer everywhere, but for the vast majority of the country beer is considered a luxury item and expensive compared to Lao Khao, so a lot of the food developed around drinking has been for drinking Lao Khao. The book will have a step-by-step process so you can see exactly how it’s made. We went to a rice liquor factory and photographed the whole process.

And the second, inspired by your Sen Yai noodle joint in Portland?

You’re going to be able to make a couple of noodle dishes taste just like they do in Thailand, complete with the option of putting MSG in it. We’re not going to have a lot of “go to the store for fishballs.” There will be a recipe for fishballs. And like the Pok Pok cookbook, yes, it will be more labor-intensive and you’ll need a deeper pantry and to think ahead and make stock ahead, but what you’ll get in return is extraordinary.

Speaking of recipes, what is your recipe to avoid jetlag?

The best thing you can do is adjust your sleeping pattern before you leave, but it’s really hard. I try, and it never works, so my remedy is when I arrive, try to stay awake until it’s a normal time to go to bed and wake at a normal time. Anthony Bourdain preaches a cocktail of drugs and eating habits. I get there through various combinations of sleep aids, caffeine, and booze. And drink lots of water!

Have you met any interesting seatmates while flying?

I’m not super-social when I travel, because frankly being on a plane is an unpleasant experience and I just want to get through it. I put my headphones on and bury my face in a book. Having just said that, I was on a JetBlue flight recently from New York to L.A. and Rod Stewart sat a couple of rows behind me, which was pretty awesome. It was in Mint class, I admit. I doubt Sir Rod would travel in economy.

Source: Condé Nast Traveler