Saturday, April 14, 2012
Pok Pok NY
I went to Pok Pok friends & family last night... My boy sat at the table next to me and says, "Homie, you ordered EVERY THING!" I bowed my head like an ashamed Chinaman, got my Jada Kiss raspy voice killa on and whispered to him, "IT'S FREE!" What are friends for right Andy?
But for real, I've been to Pok Pok Portland twice, Whiskey Soda once and Pok Pok NY is dead on. As a kid that revered Din Tai Fung Taipei only to see it watered down location after location, consistency is the most difficult thing. For a Chef to train people cross-country to think and cook like him is the hardest part of this job. It's easy to write a recipe book and teach people how to do things the right way, but its the surprises you walk into week after week that separate the good from the bad. When people send you shitty turmeric but you still have Cha Ca La Vong on your menu, CHEF! Whatchu gonna do? Air ship it from your restaurant in Portland haha. It's that refusal to water down his product that makes Andy great.
People are going to compare Pok Pok NY to Sripraphai, but it's unfair. Pok Pok focuses on Northern Thai and Sripraphai is more Central Thai food. You go to them for different things. The more apt comparison is Lotus of Siam in Vegas. They have a lot of similar dishes and I have to say Andy's cooking is much more polished, while Saipin Chutima's food has that flavor from a previous generation. It's harsh, irreverent, and declarative in its authenticity. The ginger screams, the cilantro is every where, and there is less concern with the balance of sour, sweet, salt, and spice for the palettes of this generation. It's the type of dish that young Asian kids eat with their eyes closed until the age of 12 or 13 at which point they accept it but only because their Moms have beaten them with the flavors like Z100 peddles Katy Perry. I don't even know if I really like it because I never had a choice. I eat, therefor I am.
Andy and Saipin remind me of myself and my Mom. It wasn't until 2 years ago that she finally gave me props for my red cooked pork when I made baos at home. She couldn't believe it, but at least once, I got her. She cringed when I pulled out my cherry pepsi to put in the braise but she had nothing to say about the results. I weighed every piece of pork belly on a digital scale, something she never did. I paid attention to the consistency of the garlic and split my chilis, something she never did. The same happened with her vinegar chili cabbage. Some people have sweet tooths, my Mom had a vinegar tooth. The woman put vinegar on EVERY THING. Dinner smelled like shit because she always had a big bowl of white vinegar next to her rice that she dipped fish and vegetables in. When she made dishes that called for vinegar it was always OD. We grew to love it, but Evan would take a lot of the vegetable dishes, tone down the vinegar/chilis, bring up the garlic, sugar, sneak a little soy (so little that it didn't affect color but just an undertone in flavor) in and I have to say, he got her too.
Food changes. Just line up your family and think of every one's quirks. This grandpa likes every thing in peanut oil, this one puts plum powder on every thing, this mom likes vinegar, this dad thinks Shin Ramyun is better than Menkui-Tei, the shit is hilarious. But even more than that, we have an opportunity to look at what the people have done before us and tell a different story. As little and minute the changes are, this is what interests me about food. New American or modern are great, but I've consistently said we're not ready for it in a lot of ways. We had a Central Thai restaurant and only now are we getting a Northern Thai restaurant, yet, we're littered with horrible modern Thai concepts like Kittichai that don't represent anything but Dante's 9th Circle: Fraud.
It doesn't take sudden movements to improve a dish. We don't need declarations of new, modern, or American... Just cook and we'll figure it out, thank you very much; we're smarter than you think and we notice every thing. I wish people would find more joy toiling with the exact size, shape, and mouth feel for Jin Tup like Andy does. We both have an affinity for modern, but modern to us is the Sausage within a Sausage that you find in a handful of Taiwanese Street Carts. I can't speak for Andy, but I'm not trying to be a hipster about it, that's just what interests me about food. I've made the mistake of cooking shitty food like gochujang grilled cheese (i still stand by cheeto fried chicken haha), but I learned my lesson and I appreciate those cooks that don't cook to the crowd. They're cooking just to have a dialogue with the people and history that came before them. They don't revere the past, but they respect it and do it one better. Andy's spent a lifetime and a fortune going back and forth to Thailand as a student of the cuisine. Even with all his accolades, I've never once heard him say "I invented this" every thing is credited to Northern Thailand as it should. I mean, the man puts the exact person he learned dishes from on the menu! But one day, there'll be a kid that opens something like Pok Pok, he'll pour some out for Andy and his food will start a dialogue. A conversation that sounds less like that horrible Thai country music Andy plays and more like the time Hov took the Ruler's Back and did Rick one better: The Takeover. That's all we can ask for. Respect homie.
Spareribs (Andy, ADMIT this is Chinese food! haha)
Da Chom's Laap