Red Hook’s Pok Pok Serves Hot $16 Pork Neck: Ryan Sutton
Pok Pok NY, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is a family-friendly Thai restaurant with good food and lousy service.
The place -- the name means mortar and pestle -- is small and geared toward locals, yet Manhattanites drop $35 on a cab ride for $10 eggplant. It’s excellent eggplant.
There’s a small crowd waiting when the doors open at 5:30 p.m. Latecomers may be dispatched to a backyard tent decorated with hanging flower pots, Christmas lights and plastic tablecloths.
This is the holding pen, where patrons snack on warm shrimp chips and staffers, on those rare occasions when they can be flagged down, take orders for drinks.
One house specialty is a tamarind whiskey sour ($10). Tart and cooling, it goes well with Da Chom’s laap meuang, a fiery mince of pork speckled with chiles, cracklings, garlic and shallots ($14).
Too bad the dish, like your table, is probably still an hour away.
The ringmaster is Oregon’s Andy Ricker, a Portland chef who imported his trade to New York’s Lower East Side in January with Pok Pok Wing, a Southeast Asian fried-chicken spot, and now to Brooklyn. Pok Pok NY is the more ambitious venue, serving about 27 sharable plates, 16 cocktails, 8 beers, 6 single-malt scotches, 3 wines and, improbably, 30 bourbons.
Most of the mixed drinks are shaken with enough acid to quell the heat of the spicy pork bone soup with frogs legs ($14).
With its single bar servicing diners and tent-dwellers, Pok Pok is big on keeping you waiting. For our hoi thawt ($14), a broken crepe with heady mussels, chewy eggs and bean sprouts, we had to sip water.
All restaurants have a few inconveniences. Pok Pok has many. Reservations are not accepted. There’s only one bathroom. And leave your Amex card at home.
It’s all a bit aggravating until a waitress ferries over what could be the world’s tallest gin and tonic ($9). Infused with kaffir, the drink has the taste and aroma of a lime peel on steroids.
Sip it with charcoal-grilled pork neck ($16). The fatty, smoky slices of Niman Ranch swine sit in a powerfully acidic pool of citrus and chile. But a week later, that same pork neck is gristly.
Outside, the lights of lower Manhattan glow in the light of dusk. Pok Pok, on occasion, offers such only-in-New York moments of bliss. More often, it crosses the line from casual to careless.
Muddy mustard greens are garnished with under-rendered pork ribs ($12). Brussels sprouts ($10) never arrive, but you’re charged for them anyway.
The waitress might forget your order. Patrons raid the service stations for napkins or chopsticks when staffers disappear.
Papaya pok pok ($8.50) is a terrific salad made to order with tamarind, malty fish sauce, dried shrimp, long beans and peanuts. Add salted black crab with dried chilies and it becomes incendiary.
This isn’t Kin Shop, Harold Dieterle’s excellent American love-letter to Thailand. This is, as Pok Pok’s website states, non-fusion food that’s actually eaten in Thailand, a fury of spice and herbs.
The results are inconstant. Sometimes you get fireworks, sometimes not. Kai yaang, made with an expensive breed of poultry ($12 half or $20 whole), has its subtle flavors overpowered by garlic. Flank steak ($14) shows off mint and cilantro, but the beef is bland, gray and overcooked.
Catfish salad ($14) strikes a better balance, its delicate maritime flavor somehow surviving the heat. Chiang mai sausage is equal parts meat and lemongrass -- gorgeous.
Finish off with affogato made with sweet condensed-milk ice cream, Vietnamese coffee and fresh doughnuts. Then hunt down your waiter for a check.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most dishes $15 or under.
Sound Level: Around 80 decibels, often piercing.
Date Place: If strollers turn you on.
Inside Tip: Try the not-too-spicy pork shoulder curry.
Special Feature: No-booze “drinking vinegars” like pomegranate mixed with plain soda, are the new rage (for some).
Back on My Own Dime: I’m more of a Kin Shop guy.
Pok Pok NY is at 127 Columbia Street, Brooklyn. Information: +1-718-923-9322; http://www.pokpokny.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include James Pressley on books and Zinta Lundborg on books.