I must be the last person on the internet to write about Pok Pok Wing. Unfortunately, there are still folks out there that haven’t yet heard about Andy Ricker’s wing shack that replaced BaoHaus in the Lower East Side. Ricker was thrown into restaurant superstardom for his special chicken wings that were a hit in Portland, Oregon. The James Beard award (a big deal in the food world) he received was convincing evidence that he needed to bring his signature dish to the East Coast. His story started when he tasted a street snack in Saigon and tirelessly worked for years to capture the complexity of the flavor, often travelling back to Southeast Asia. Luckily for the rest of us, he succeeded. I stopped by Pok Pok Wing to see what all they hype was about.
The walls of Pok Pok are covered with the album art of vinyl records Ricker collected from a shop in Bangkok. Inside the narrow store you’ll hear the faint buzz of Thai pop music while you look over their short menu. Aside from the wings, Ricker boldly goes where most Thai chefs avoid, by offering obscure items that only adventurous eaters would consider (it’s almost no surprise that Portlandians embraced it). Although I really wanted to try the Khao Man Som Tam, green papaya salad with coconut rice and shredded pork, I had a duty to report on the wings. This was one of those not-so-rare moments when I wish I had a second stomach.
I asked for half an order of the famous Ike’s Wings ($7.25) and requested that they be spicy. The wings are marinated in fish sauce, garlic, and sugar to start. It’s important to note that they aren’t part of Thai cuisine, and have their roots in Vietnam. After marinating them, the wings are deep fried and coated with a caramelized garlic and Phu Quoc fish sauce mixture. I hope I haven’t lost anyone with the mention of fish sauce and chicken wings, because the result is a fantastic blend of crispy meatiness with an exceptional balance of spice and sweetness. Ike’s Wings, named after Ich Truong (an early employee of Ricker’s that helped perfect the recipe), are incredibly hard to put down once you start. The wings are sticky and it’s difficult not to make a mess on your fingertips. Clean yourself up with the unlimited supply of nearby wet naps. The three wings were whole pieces that were accompanied by an unusually delicious Vietnamese pickled salad. It was tarty, subtly sweet and refreshingly crisp. It was a perfect way to cut through the heavy, thick flavor of the wings.
If you need something to sip on (you will) while you’re munching away at your wings, ask for their Som Drinking Vinegars ($4). Depending on which flavor you get, the drink is made by macerating fruits, vegetables, or herbs and concentrating the flavor with cane sugar and coconut vinegar. The powerfully tart mix is stirred with soda water. I was partial to the pomegranate flavor, but they also had tamarind, honey, and apple. It’s like nothing else I’ve had before, and it pairs unbelievably well with the flavor of the wings. If you would rather not spend the extra money on the drink, you can get the Pandanus Water for free. The water is flavored with Pandanus leaf, which is found throughout Northern Thailand. The aromatic water feels slightly heavier and has the soft taste of toasted rice with vanilla accents.
It’s unfortunate, but I can understand why people are comparing these sticky wings to Korean fried chicken. It’s very easy to tire of a platter from Bon Chon, but Ike’s Wings have an addictive element that puts the entire package on a completely different level. I won’t overlook the fact that Pok Pok is slightly pricier than most people are used to, but the quality of food is superb. I admire the care and thought Ricker put into the food he serves. The heat of the chilies used at Pok Pok changes seasonally because come from multiple locations in Southeast Asia. Ricker has to re-tune the recipe to achieve his signature flavor on a regular basis. The staff is friendly, and aren’t the sort of off-putting hipsters you’ll find across the bridge. Pok Pok is a great spot to grab a late snack before you drink yourself silly in the Lower East Side. Keep in mind that they’re open only after 5pm.
*Fun Fact: The name “Pok Pok” comes from the sound made by a mortar hitting a pestle. It’s used a staple of Thai kitchens for grinding chilies (and whatever else needs crushing).*