If you're looking for a comforting bowl of Pad Thai or Penang Curry, don't worry about wearing those four-inch heels out to dinner. From on Smith Street to on Court Street, there are a handful of easily accessible restaurants in Carroll Gardens that will appeal and are happy to.
But if you're itching for a taste of something less mainstream and more like a Thai grandmother's specialty, better put on your hiking boots. Because then you need to hoof it to Pok Pok NY in the Columbia Waterfront District—and be prepared to wait in line for up to an hour outside.
Opened last month in the space once occupied by 5 Burro Cafe and Pit Stop, Pok Pok NY joins a short list of enterprising restaurants gambling on rumors that Columbia could be the next Smith Street. The man holding the most cards at the moment is Portland, Oregon's James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker, an unofficial ambassador of Thai cuisine.
Ricker first visited Thailand as a backpacker in 1987. He's returned each year since, studying Southeast Asian food culture, later recreating it at his restaurants back home in the states. As a result, everything on the menu at Pok Pok NY has been meticulously researched and curated, down to the (at-first) mysteriously cloudy carafe of water planted on your table.
Flavored with Pandanus leaf, in the traditional Northern Thai style, the water is infused with a subtle toasted rice flavor that gently welcomes your palate to Chiang Mai. Pair that with an oil-cloth covered table and chalkboards scrawled with neon specials, and the mood has been set.
Order for the crowd, not just yourself: Pok Pok's menu is built to be shared and its bold flavors are natural conversation starters, even if those exchanges simply begin with 'mmm.'
While many of the dishes come from Thailand, not all do. Most prominent of these exceptions are the twice-fried, fish-sauce chicken wings taken from a Pok Pok Portland cook's Vietnamese family recipe, and which have developed a cult following among a certain food-obsessed set. You can't really blame them, though. Sweet with palm sugar and sticky with caramelized Puo Quoc, they are the kind of wings that lead to licking your fingers in public because you don't want to waste anything on the wet naps.
To shake things up, try the Papaya Pok Pok salad with salted black crab. The papaya, long beans, tomatoes and peanuts look innocent enough on the platter but will ignite the insides of your mouth before you can even say dried chilies.
Taking necessarily long sips from Asian beers such as Tsingtao or Tiger to temper the flames, you may be momentarily transported back to that semester abroad in Singapore. And, hey, whatever happened to the girl from Denmark you met there anyway?
But don't linger in your memories too long—there are still ribs to be eaten. Large, juicy Niman Ranch baby back ribs that have been dry-rubbed with what tastes like cinnamon but is actually a blend of whisky, soy, ginger, honey and Thai spices, to be exact. Dip them into one of the two side sauces if you must dance into the fire again, or just gently tear at the bones ungarnished. They stand on their own.
The Cha Ca "La Vong" Vietnamese catfish medallions served over slick rice vermicelli noodles with mint and cilantro is a silky respite from earlier fires. But, frankly, time is better spent shooting straight for the durian custard with sesame seeds and coconut sauce, which will haunt you for days and weeks afterward.
Durian fruit, if you've never seen it, happens to be pretty thorny on the outside and its natural odor is fairly offensive. This leaves many reluctant to try it. But once you do, most can't help coming back to it knowing it contains such an incredible, unique taste.
Perhaps the same can now be said for trekking to Columbia Street.
Pok Pok NY, 127 Columbia Street near Kane Street; open Wednesday through Sunday, 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.; no reservations.