Upon first glance, Portland’s own Andy Ricker may not seem a likely candidate for running one of the nation’s most successful Thai culinary empires. Yet with multiple concepts and locations on both coasts, Ricker’s series of Thai restaurants make for one of the most interesting and innovative “small kingdoms” in the country.
The bi-coastal chef has already published his first cookbook, crafted his own line of drinking vinegars, and received James Beard awards for both his cooking and writing of Thai cuisine, alongside numerous “Restaurant of the Year” awards from a variety of publications. And while Thai traditionalists may balk at the fact that Ricker himself has no familial ties to Thai cuisine, one visit to any one of his restaurants would win over even the most devout fan of classical Thai cuisine.
So how does he do it?
Birth of an Empire
For Ricker, opening a Northern-Thai inspired restaurant was an obvious choice. After spending several years backpacking throughout Thailand, including spending time working in some of the local restaurants, Ricker sought to bring back the unique and flavorful traditional dishes to the States.
Ricker opened his first Thai restaurant in 2005 on Portland’s trendy Division Street, which he named Pok Pok after both the spicy Thai papaya salad he grew to love and the sound a pestle and mortar make while making the dish. Rejecting the label of “fusion cuisine,” Pok Pok is instead inspired by a host of traditional South East Asian dishes, though heavily influenced by a mixture of Northern Thai-style cooking and Thai street-food. Working with a variety of natural, organic and local produce and meats, Pok Pok has become a destination in and of itself, attracting both hungry visitors and locals alike.
After five years, Ricker decided to expand the concept by opening The Whiskey Soda Lounge right down the street, a restaurant that seeks to explore another aspect of Thai cooking – the drinking food of Thailand. The menu separates dishes into two categories: “food ready to eat” and “food that takes a while.” Whiskey Soda Lounge manages to cater perfectly to both the drinking crowd, with traditional Thai bar snacks like dried cuttlefish, Thai jerky, and a host of Thai inspired cocktails, as well as to the “sobering up crowd,” with options such as hot soups, “drunkard’s stir fry” and a variety of craft caffeinated beverages.
From Portland to Beyond
Ricker would go on to open another three Thai concepts in Portland: Pok Pok Noi, which serves a compilation of the most popular dishes of Pok Pok, Sen Yai Noodles, an economical noodle joint, and Pok Pok Wing, located inside the Portland International Airport. Yet after spending close to seven years in Portland, Ricker decided it was time to take his Thai cooking to the East Coast and after careful consideration, decided on New York. Between 2012-2013, Ricker opened a trifecta of Thai concepts in the city, including second locations of Pok Pok and Whiskey Soda Lounge, which serve up original dishes inspired from their Portland locations, alongside a new concept Pok Pok Phat Thai which focuses on a variety of noodle dishes.
With successful locations on both coasts, earlier this year Ricker decided to expand to yet another state, this time returning to the West Coast with the goal of opening not one but two of his restaurants in the heart of Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Ricker opened Pok Pok Phat Thai at the beginning of the year in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza — a fast casual-esque noodle bar that offers a stellar expression of its namesake. With other menu options including Phat Sii Ew, Hoi Thawt and Phat Phak Buung Muu, Pok Pok Phat Thai joins with neighboring Chego and Ramen Champ in helping to revive the once culinary devoid Chinatown.
And Ricker is not content there, and has plans to open another iteration of Pok Pok later this summer, also in Chinatown. LA’s Pok Pok is set to include many of the dishes found in Portland’s original location alongside featuring dishes from the Whiskey Soda Lounge at the bar.
Referred to more often as a Thai culinary ambassador than restaurant operator, Andy Ricker has been instrumental in inspiring an interest in Thai cuisine in the United States. His “small kingdom” continues to grow and with it comes a fascinating array of experimental flavors expressed through traditional Thai dishes.