Pok Pok is a much-chattered about Thai restaurant, recently landed in our hood. I knew it had a small wing outpost in town (to me, Manhattan is "town"), on the Lower East Side, but I did not know - until I fell over it the other day - that it is now also five blok bloks away, on Columbia Street, beyond the BQE (The Great Divide) in the early parts of Red Hook.
I had been mourning the end of Long Tan, on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, and had been telling old, frayed stories about Phat Pong, on East 7th Street, and wishing loudly for a decent Thai joint nearby. Or anywhere.
Now there is one.
The hype is interesting. Because it implies that good Thai just does not exist beyond the Pok Pokosphere. Yet I cook/chop/prepare SE Asian food often at home with some integrity. Armed with hunger, desire, good herbs, memory and excellent books. So why is it hard to recreate? I can't answer that.
And what you get at Pok Pok is good, perfumed, frank food. Not always strictly speaking Thai, but who cares? The herbs, the salty, the sour, the sweet and the well-sourced are there. Sticky rice in plastic bags inside bamboo baskets. Persicaria odorata (Vietnamese mint, laksa, phak pai) - a funky-fragrant garnish. Tamarind leaf salad.
Contrary to predictions we walked straight in and were seated at an outdoor table, reached by a broad side alley. Maybe were lucky. On another visit, the wait was an hour. For us, living so close by, not worth it.
We ordered gin and tonics to start, with lime leaf-infused gin. They tasted bizarre. Like drinking lime leaf air. Gulp, gulp - nothing. Conclusion: Seltzer water instead of tonic. Flat seltzer water. Um. An inauspicious start. But they were taken away by our genuinely nice waiter and returned to us, tonic-d up, and they did not make to our bill, at all. That was nice.
The cocktail list is impressive. We did not venture into the drinking-vinegar zone. Maybe at lunch.
Yes, I liked the celebritised chicken wings. What's not to like? Sticky, bone sucking, very sweet. Very sweet. A bit too sweet, for me, but Vince loved them. I'm pretty sure the spicy version we ordered was not delivered: No trace of chile. The fish sauce must have been there, hiding, because I drank water for hours, afterwards. I preferred the more interesting salad of beef flank steak, high on mint and lemon grass; the curried barbecued sausage, the charred ribs, both with real off-the-coals flavour. The papaya salad looked insipid, despite its chopped up yard long beans but blew my head off. It was fine, and I still miss Phat Pong's. More herbs? Or herbs on the table, to choose from?
Dessert - a delectable condensed milk ice cream in a pool of coffee. A clever riff on affogato and Vietnamese coffee, in which condensed milk is requisite.
The garden, beneath its sunshine yellow Singha umbrellas and wrapped in cheap bamboo screens, is bright and appealing. Tables are separated generously by staggered stacks of red and yellow and blue milk crates housing blocks of grasses - miscanthus, blue fescue. This space was designed by Thomas Kosbau, of Ore Design, of DeKalb Market fame, whom we met briefly recently at a friend's birthday.
A New York Times photographer was all over the garden space, and Vince, very slow to be riled up, eventually raised a hand and asked him to desist (well, he could have asked). So watch that space...
One thing: there is one toilet. And you have to leave the garden and the large "waiting tent" (where you can have drink, prior to being seated), go back up the alley and in the front door, past the queue of waiting people, to find it. You might as well have I Need to Pee written on your fore head. Inside the bathroom, a sign requests your expedience.
Again, very happy to be living nearby.
The waiting is not fun. But the food is more-ish, more than satisfies the longing for the SE Asian peninsula and the service is appealing. Not for a minute did we feel rushed.
We'll be back. Soon.
Update: here is the New York Times review of Pok Pok, by Pete Wells.