When something in my apartment breaks, I call my dad. When I have relationship woes, I call my mom. And when I want to talk Thai food, I call my friend Andy Ricker, chef-owner of Portland, Oregon’s Pok Pok. In the last 25 years, Andy has traveled to Thailand two-dozen times, soaking up the country’s food traditions by eating and cooking everywhere from street stalls to temples of “hi-so” (high society) cuisine. His six-year-old restaurant Pok Pok and its street-snack sibling Whiskey Soda Lounge have landed him a James Beard award, and have put him in the international spotlight as a champion of true Thai food. And not just “he cooks great Thai food for a white guy,” but real respect, such that when Grant Achatz’s team was prepping for the Thai incarnation of Next, they didn’t go to Bangkok—they went to Portland.
So, naturally, when Ricker snagged a reservation for Next’s Tour of Thailand menu, I jumped at the chance to go with him.
We arrived at the restaurant an hour after Ricker’s plane touched down. The room was serene, simple and dark—just the way it looked for the opening Paris 1906 menu—and exotic sounds poured through invisible speakers. “ZudRangMa,” Ricker whispered as we were led into the kitchen to be greeted by chef de cuisine Dave Beran. “Two Bangkok DJs, Maft Sai and Chris Menist. We play it at Pok Pok.”
“Chef!” Beran said. “Congratulations on the Beard.” He and Ricker shot the shit before Beran touched on Next’s approach. “We’re having fun with Thai food…not claiming it’s authentic like what you do. It’s our take.”
We slid into our booth. Ricker chuckled, picking up one of the Thai newspapers set on the table. “These are the trash dailies,” he explained. “They tend to have pictures of dead people on the front page, murders, suicides, motorcycle accidents and then girls with big boobs on page four.” He leafed through it—no big boobs. “They must have to take out pages here and there.”
A server arrived and started spreading the pages out in front of us like a makeshift tablecloth, and behind him a parade of snacks appeared: steamed bun stuffed with green curry mushrooms; crispy poufs of shredded prawn and lime zest threads; shrimp bathed in garlic and set on mint leaf; a finger-size banana, roasted and garnished with crunchy garlic; glistening Isaan-style fermented sausage. We went right for the sausage, wetter than typical but with plenty of that sour funk that sets this stuff apart. Ricker bit into the bun, a Chinese import, and nodded while devouring it. “Typically green curry would be sweet,” he said. “But I like that they’ve made it salty to counter the bun dough and accentuated the basil like a pesto.” I broke a prawn pouf in half and handed one part to him. “Salty, but on point. Would normally be with sweet dipping sauce [to offset] the saltiness.” I scooped soft banana out of its jacket, loving the contrast of the fried garlic. “Grilled bananas are common, but I’ve never had it like this. It’s smart because it’s not unusual to put fried shallots on sweets.”
And so it went. We overanalyzed everything that went into our mouths for more than two hours, until I was swimming in the details. Or maybe I was swimming in killer pairings from sommelier Joe Catterson: Batavia arrack liquor swirled into guava juice for our snacks, puckery txakoli wine alongside caramel-sauced catfish, a hibiscus-mangosteen beer from Half Acre for beef cheeks that melted into panang curry.
Ricker and I weren’t there to play authenticity police. That said, there were moments when Next’s liberties gave Ricker pause. For his made-to-order green papaya salad (som tom), chef Beran used the traditional (and brave) method of holding the fruit in one hand while hacking it into uneven shards with a long blade. “It takes practice,” Ricker noted, shoveling the salad into his mouth. “These pieces are pretty big and the mango added is a freestyle, plus it’s super garlicky and not sweet enough, and the tomatoes are lost because they’re diced so small.” Another forkful and he added, “Having said all of that, it still tastes really good. It’s the type of thing where the average American palate would probably appreciate this more than traditional som tom.”
As for the tom yum soup, Beran nailed it by using a Thai trick he employed by building the soup from pig’s trotters. “The best tom yum in Thailand are made with pork broth,” Ricker commented. “That’s the secret, it’s understood, and this broth is far closer to the base broth you would use in tom yum than anything I’ve had in America.” And at least once, Ricker was inspired by something unfamiliar, particularly a banana pepper take on nam prik (chili paste) funked up with white anchovies the size of saffron strands (the dish does not typically utilize anchovies). “I love this,” Ricker said, “I’m calling JB [his sous chef] to tell him about it.”
Save for a few moves deemed direct borrows from other cultures—the catfish in caramel smacked of Vietnam, the charcoal–fired tableside grill channeled Japanese kushiyaki joints, the pad Thai was assembled like Italian pasta on al dente noodles rather than a cohesive stir fry—Next succeeded in corralling the flavors of Thailand into food that was tasty, and oftentimes delicious. Combined with the service, the music and those pairings, I was so caught up in the experience that price didn’t enter the equation until the bill came.
I brought it up later that night at Big Star, where Andy made room for a fish taco alongside vodka on the rocks. Is there a disconnect paying $200 a person for Thai food, even considering the full experience?
Andy looked up from his taco, visibly annoyed. “The fact that even you have a hard time thinking about Thai food as a cuisine worth paying top dollar for says a lot for how ingrained the idea is that it’s a ‘cheap’ food. Would you have felt the same if it was Spanish? Italian? French? Moroccan? Even Indian? They’re using top-notch ingredients, it’s extremely labor-intensive. Why is it any different at all from another cuisine?”
I considered that, commenting that some people even complain about Big Star’s $3 tacos, in a town where plenty are less than two and the real deal in Baja are a buck.
“Yeah, but I’m not there right now. I’m in Chicago,” he replied. “Who cares if it’s the real deal when it’s delicious?”