One night not long ago, I ran into a friend and mentioned to him that I had been blogging about chicken wings. “Have you gone to Pok Pok yet?” he asked. No, I moaned, but I’d been wanting to go — in fact, I’d made two dates to visit Pok Pok Wing on the Lower East Side, but both plans had been canceled. And although I kept meaning to make a special trip there, order the wings to go and take them home, the prospect of doing all that to eat chicken wings by myself seemed like too much work, and also made me sad.
I lamely tried to explain myself. My friend’s face widened into semi-faux shock. “How can you call yourself a wings blogger if you haven’t gone to Pok Pok?” he asked. He was right, of course. Half my reason for starting this blog was to have an excuse to go to Pok Pok Wing, and I had failed — as an eater, as a blogger, and as a person. [Cue dramatic orchestral score; black-and-white shots of me walking down a desolate city block, in the rain.]
Pok Pok Wing, a takeout joint that opened in March, was the first New York venture from Andy Ricker, James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of the Thai restaurant Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon. Ricker’s signature dish is his wings, which are more or less the only thing on the menu at Pok Pok Wing. (Also, “poks.” Oh, I kid.) (“Pok pok,” in case you’re wondering, is a phrase meant to emulate the sound a mortar and pestle make in the preparation of Thai papaya salad.)
My parents’ recent visit to New York gave me the perfect opportunity to visit many the restaurants I’d been wanting to try, but hadn’t yet owing to lack of company or funds. These included Battersby (mind-blowingly great), Ai Fiori (expensive but impressive, with great service), Tertulia (holy amazingness), the Williamsburg food market Smorgasburg (really fun, and not remotely the shitshow the Great Googa Mooga apparently was); plus we swung visits to Momofuku Ssam for the duck lunch and to Chip Shop for fish and chips and twice-fried apple pie. And yes, to answer your question, I did gain 15 pounds, thanks for asking.
My parents, expert food-lovers with adventurous palates, didn’t need much convincing to try Pok Pok NY, Ricker’s even newer sit-down restaurant in Brooklyn’s Columbia Waterfront District. It opened in April and has been packed ever since. Like most such restaurants in Brooklyn, Pok Pok NY doesn’t take reservations — nor do they have takeout. Conquering this place would require a plan.
As soon as my parents’ flight arrived, I hustled them out the door and over to the restaurant, thinking that trying to get in on the late side (around 9 p.m.) might work in our favor. No such luck. “An hour and a half,” we were told. These days I rarely wait around that long for food, but these were Pok Pok wings, and I was finally here, and I would not be denied. We sauntered down the road to the bar at Alma, where we killed time over drinks and a plate of fries. An hour later, I got the call: “We have three seats at the bar. Do you want them?” “LET’S GO,” I barked at my parents (I’m kidding, I would never yell at them, I’m the good daughter*), and back to Pok Pok we went.
*also, the only daughter
Seats at the bar! Hooks! Excellent. Pok Pok NY is a small place, with only about ten tables in the front room, plus room for around six at the bar. I later discovered that there’s a more commodious back room, plus a few chairs meant to serve as a waiting area, keeping people off the front sidewalk.
There’s a full menu at Pok Pok NY, so in addition to the famed Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, we ordered the Papaya Pok Pok salad, the Muu Kham Waan (grilled pork neck with sugar, soy, garlic and coriander root), and the Kung Op Wun Sen (prawns baked in a clay pot with pork belly, soy, ginger, cilantro and glass noodles).
The pork neck was the undisputed star of the show. It had that nice charcoal smokiness to it, yet the medium-size slices were all meltingly tender, loaded with flavor. Everything worked. The menu describes it as “Northern Thai drinking food,” and if this is what the people of Northern Thailand consider drinking food, then get me on the next flight to Thailand and hand me a beer. The prawns were also delicious — I loved the noodles all infused with the sauce — and frankly, I don’t remember all that much about the salad. When I think back on the meal, it’s the pork neck I remember.
Given how long I’d been waiting to eat them, the wings were going to have to be spectacular to impress me. And if I’m being honest, I wasn’t blown away — but maybe there was no way I could be, after all that hype. Marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, the wings are deep-fried and then tossed with even more fish sauce (caramelized, this time) and garlic. They certainly have a different taste to them, and that’s the fish sauce, which cuts the sweetness of the sugar and gives it that savory/not-quite-salty flavor known as umami. They’re spicy and sticky. They taste good. They’re not quite like any wings I’ve had before, and you will eat them all. Yet next to that pork neck and the prawns, they weren’t the best thing I ate that night; and when I think about my next visit to Pok Pok NY (and there will be one), I’m not positive that I’ll order the wings.
I don’t think this is the wings’ fault. The entire menu at Pok Pok NY is so appealing — why would you order chicken wings when you can get pork belly and pork shoulder curry, or catfish marinated in turmeric, or grilled eggplant salad topped with boiled egg, shallots and crispy garlic? There’s even a pork bone soup with frog legs dish, and I’m no frog-leg expert or even a fan, but my curiosity runneth over. Plus, there’s a rotisserie-roasted hen I’m already smacking my lips to try.
The Pok Pok wings, while tasty, were overshadowed by their more complex and sophisticated brethren; but I mean to give the wings their due. These are wings meant to be eaten — as my Pok Pok Wing-frequenting friend had described them — late at night, with a bunch of friends, alongside no more accompaniment than a bottle of beer. Then, and only then, can they truly shine. Watch out, Pok Pok wings, I’ll be coming for you … again.
Pok Pok NY
127 Columbia Street at Kane Street
Columbia Waterfront District, Brooklyn, New York
Pok Pok Wing
137 Rivington Street
Lower East Side, New York