Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas may have been the first place in America to shine major attention on northern Thai specialties, with its grilled meats, shock of herbs, and spice-driven dishes so different from the color-by-number coconut curries that star on most Thai restaurant menus. Yet Ricker, with four restaurants in Portland and three in New York, has proven to be a careful translator with mass appeal. He's troweled and deconstructed recipes during two decades of travel to Thailand (and counting), and his replicas hit the hot spots of our modern palate. Ricker's signature charcoal-roasted hen — garlicky, stuffed with lemongrass, and served with sharp, puckery dipping sauces with ingredients like tamarind — opens a portal to fiercer, funkier pleasures such as chopped duck salad, the bird's liver offset by an uppercut of lime juice and fish sauce.
Whiskey Soda Lounge
A recent weeknight scene at Pok Pok proved typical. I slid around the wall of waiting bodies to find my friend, who'd just put in her name for a table. Quoted time: 45 minutes. We crossed the street to Ricker's Whiskey Soda Lounge, which launched in 2009 as a valve release for the mounting pressures on Pok Pok. It soon developed its own personality, serving Thai pub snacks and cocktails potent and acidic enough to keep up with the spice and heat. It would be tempting to settle in for dinner at the bar, its back wall painted a shade of tropical turquoise that makes one long for a swim, and graze through the list of nearly 20 dishes.
We ordered lightly to hold out for the main event. Pork riblets, cured in a rice and garlic paste and deep-fried fried, had an intriguing sourness that primed the taste buds. Miang kham made an ideal early-evening nibble: minced clusters of chiles, ginger, peanuts, dried shrimp, coconut, and lime were bound in a sauce that included palm sugar, tamarind, and shrimp paste and then placed on pepper betel leaves. Like so many of Ricker's recreations, it had more ingredients than the brain can easily absorb, but it tasted more harmonious with every bite. I sipped a cocktail made with mekhong, the Thai spirit largely distilled with sugar cane but also infused with rice for a sneaky aftertaste that recalls sake.
Pok Pok texted us exactly 44 minutes later, and we were soon sitting in a packed room with a compact bar and walls that morphed from red brick to wood paneling halfway up. Our server was tall and serious and took unusual pride in pacing out our meal so the plates never piled up. What struck me was the symphonic balance in every dish. Chiang Mai sausage, for example, soared with fluty lemongrass and galangal and boomed with fish sauce and chile while ground pork shoulder and belly took the melody. Fresh turmeric and cilantro gave it painterly color. Green chile dipping sauce and pork rinds echoed the flavors. It was cooking that doubled as tabletop performance.
The finesse extended to the dishes that weren't strictly Thai. The restaurant's famous chicken wings were as narcotic as expected. Ricker's first employee, Ich "Ike" Truong, hailed from Vietnam. To the Pok Pok repertoire he contributed a snack of marinated wings fried and then tossed in a wok until set in amber of fish sauce, sugar, and chile paste. Bits of caramelized garlic were caught in the stickiness. And Ricker's take on Cha Ca La Vong, a catfish salad of sorts inspired by a restaurant in Hanoi that serves this one specialty, was a marvel of satisfactions. Golden hunks of fish (the hue in part stemming from oil tinted with turmeric) contrasted with herbs in turn bitter, earthy, and sweet; rice noodles underneath entertained the teeth.
When discussing the food he studies and cooks, Ricker likes to refer to himself as a "copycat." It's a commendable stance, the white guy not wanting to take credit for a cuisine whose layered complexities remain foreign to most of us. But if his influence keeps broadening our understanding of Southeast Asian cooking, and if his success helps Thai or Vietnamese natives who run restaurants in America find success preparing their regional specialties, then I'd say his imitation is more than flattery. It's a breakthrough.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Interior photo: Dina Avila
Food photos: Bill Addison