Fast forward nearly three decades and both Ricker and Los Angeles have changed. He's also come back. Now a master of Thai cuisine best known for his Pok Pok eateries, Ricker is opening two Thai restaurants in the city's Chinatown, finally expanding his eight Pok Pok restaurants, lounges and wing shops beyond Portland, Oregon, and New York City.
Pok Pok Phat Thai began serving noodle dishes in December at a tiny storefront at Far East Plaza, a shopping complex home to new hot spots, including Roy Choi's Chego and older Chinese tea and garment stores. By late spring or early summer, Ricker is expecting to open another Pok Pok restaurant with an expanded menu featuring new and better-known specialties at nearby Mandarin Plaza.
Unlike New York and Portland, Ricker said Southern California offers close access to the herbs and products he needs for his dishes. Los Angeles also is home to roughly 80,000 people of Thai origin — meaning a good portion of the dining population is very familiar with the authentic, northern Thailand dishes for which is known (and been honoured by the James Beard Foundation).
"My hope is that people will be more readily accepting of the things that are a little more esoteric," he said. In other words: "They'll be willing to tackle offal."
He recently spoke with AP about rediscovering Los Angeles, as well as how to set himself and his food apart. (Edited for length and clarity.)
AP: Why did you choose Chinatown in Los Angeles as the location for your new restaurants?
Ricker: LA is a very inviting market for a lot of restaurateurs right now. There are a lot of interesting things going on here. The markets in other areas of the country like New York in particular have gotten incredibly difficult to operate in. And also just the weather there is just really awful. For me, it was really important to me to be somewhere I could get the products that I needed to do the food that I want to do. Southern California is definitely one of those places.
AP: In a city with so much Thai food, how do you think your restaurants will be distinct?
Ricker: While there are some of the dishes on our menu that other restaurants also have, we have our specific way of making it. The food of Thailand, as I prefer to call it, is an incredibly varied thing. It's regional, seasonal. There's a lot more to it than we've gotten used to in the West. I think there's a tendency for most Thai restaurants in America to be really broadly general. They'll have a menu of 100, 120 different things. We've kept it pared down and really try to concentrate on the things we can do well. We displease some people. They're used to a dish at a local Thai place and we don't have it so either they're upset or maybe they're not interested in eating what we have on a menu. This is a calculated risk that we take.
AP: Can you give us a preview of something that might be on the LA menu that we haven't seen in Portland or New York?
Ricker: I'd like to be adding some of the food that comes from the north of Thailand, but not the Chiang Mai region. Out to Mae Hong Son toward the Burmese border. There are a lot of people who come from Burma but have been living in Thailand for generations and the food has taken on its own flavour profile. Another food I'm interested in doing in the future is Akha food. I'm really attracted to stuff like that. And when I go to Chiang Mai, every time I learn new things, I learn new dishes. I just got back from Thailand a week ago. I'm coming back with a couple of dishes I intend to add to the menu. One is called khua haem, a dried, fried, very, very aromatic, very, very spicy stir-fry typically of chopped up chicken wings mixed with chicken offal.
AP: Do you think Americans are ready for a dish beyond pad thai?
Ricker: You can't think of Americans anymore as stuffy white folks who eat TV dinners only. We're a nation of many different ethnicities. Asians in particular are the fastest growing ethnicity in the country. And all these kids are growing up together. They're going out with their buddies to Korean barbecue joints. They're going to Vietnamese restaurants. Are people who culturally have not been raised to eat foods like this more interested in it? I don't know. I think so. I think their kids are. I think the young folks are. In general a lot of the restaurants which serve this kind of food are doing very well.
AP: What has most surprised you about the food scene in Los Angeles?
Ricker: I didn't come here with any real expectations. My only expectations were that I'd be able to eat lots and lots of regional Mexican food and lots and lots Korean. What's been surprising to me, if I had to pick something: When I was here Koreatown was a relatively small place. And now it's massive. And there's so much amazing, interesting food there. I'm kind of blown away. The other big surprise for me was San Gabriel Valley. When I lived here in the '80s I have no memory of it being a big Chinese area. There's just this fantastic food scene out there.
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