For the past few years, New York has been engaged in a love affair with Portland, Oregon. That is to say, New Yorkers of a certain political and socioeconomic bent have come to idealize my hometown for its reputed liberal leanings, bicycle friendliness, chill vibe, hipster-artist culture, dominance in coffee and microbrews and culinary badassedness. There seems to be another article every season in the New York Times, extolling the virtues of Portland. These are certainly worthy things to love about a city, and Portland is worthy, if not always accepting, of that love. But the food and drink producers of Portland have been increasingly taking advantage of the instant cache that their city delivers by expanding their empires to New York. Andy Ricker, the chef and owner of Portland’s fantastic Southeast Asian restaurant Pok Pok, is the latest Portland culinary star to bring his brand to the Big Apple. Ricker is preparing to open a full-service restaurant in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, but he is already hard at work whetting New York’s appetite with a small counter-service-only spot on the Lower East Side called Pok Pok Wing.
As a Portlander and a foodie New Yorker, it was incumbent upon me to give Pok Pok Wing an early assessment. I got Dan Dan Noodle and Imperial Stout to meet me there last week, and we proceeded to order almost everything on the menu. While it was plenty of food, that sounds more impressive than it actually is because Pok Pok Wing has only three dishes on its menu, plus a rotating special. These include: papaya pok pok, a green papaya salad, which can be (and was) ordered with salted black crab; khao man som tom, a green papaya salad served with coconut rice and shredded pork; and the star of the show, Ike’s Wings. Dan Dan and Imperial Stout scouted for a table as I pushed my way through the crowded dining space, where diners stood or sat on stools in front of high tables, to the front counter. The special was a pork-shop sandwich. I ordered that too. Pok Pok Wing serves no alcohol, but it does offer the ultimate in unique beverages: drinking vinegars. These are tart, fruit-flavored vinegars blended with soda water. They come in tamarind, honey, apple and pomegranate. I ordered all but the more pedestrian-sounding apple, and we waited in the tightly packed space for our food to be ready.
While we waited, I recognized a fellow Portlander and New York transplant sitting at the counter. I hadn’t seen him since we did drama camp together in middle school, but this was a fitting forum for a reunion. Soon our food was ready and a seating nook was cleared. We sat down with our paper plates to dig in. Let me first just state the obvious and say these wings put the standard sports bar fare to shame. In fact, they wouldn’t even be recognizable as the same cut of meat. That’s because Pok Pok’s wings are served whole with an extra bony joint off which one can suck the meat and succulent skin. And it is truly succulent; marinated in fish sauce, garlic and sugar, deep fried, caramelized and tossed in another fish sauce and more garlic, these are at once sweet, pungent and fiery. We ordered the spicy version, which offered a kick of chilies at the end. I had tried the papaya pok pok in Portland and had loved the complexity and vibrancy of the combination of crispy green papaya, tomatoes and long beans, dressed with fish sauce, Thai chilies, garlic, dried shrimp and peanuts. But I had not sampled the extra spicy version with the salted black crab. The black crab was particularly surprising, not only for its extreme saltiness, but also because it was the crunchy shell we were meant to eat. There was no meat to be had, the server explained to me when I picked up the plate. This dish was also quite spicy, an effect moderated by the balls of sticky rice we ate it with.
The pulled pork with its accompanying green papaya salad was tasty, but the sweet, fragrant coconut rice was probably the best thing on the plate. Lastly, there was that pork chop sandwich, which looked like something Fred Flintstone would have eaten for lunch. A massive crusty roll was toasted on both sides and lined with a whole Niman Ranch bone-in pork chop. There were no condiments spread on the breadâ€” just the juice from that pork chop. I found this dish unwieldy, a bit dry and somewhat pointless. But I was thankful that the only dud on this menu was not a staple. The drinking vinegars were quite interesting—invigorating, yet fruity and sweet. The pomegranate and tamarind actually ended up being a bit too sweet for my taste, but I was surprised to find that the natural acidity of the honey aided the vinegar in balancing out that flavor.
Pok Pok Wing will be an even better place to stop in when summer rolls around, and I can take my food outside. But even in the cramped space, there was much to love about this Portland transplant. I’m still not sure that Pok Pok needs New York, but New Yorkers are definitely reaping the rewards of its presence.
Pok Pok Wing
137 Rivington St.
New York, NY 10002