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Farewell to Pok Pok LA, my Chinatown bar 'fantasy'

Farewell to Pok Pok LA, my Chinatown bar 'fantasy'
Chef and restaurateur Andy Ricker is shown on the second floor of his Chinatown restaurant, Pok Pok LA, which recently closed. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

I have daydreamed about a possible graduate course on the semiotics of Pok Pok LA, unpacking the levels of meaning one by one as if the Chinatown restaurant were "Moby Dick" or at least "Paradise Lost: Book 1." What does it mean to drink water infused with pandan leaf? Is the Chiang Mai-style noodle dish khao soi gai more or less authentic when it is made with freshly expressed coconut milk than with the nondairy creamer that is standard in some local restaurants. Does a Thai-fluent non-Thai have anything to teach a thriving Thai American community, or is Andy Ricker's northern Thai gospel better suited for his other restaurants in Portland and Brooklyn?

I loved Pok Pok LA, although I was as confused as anyone else whenever I juxtaposed it with Night + Market Song, which in so many respects approached a similar pop-Thai aesthetic but in radically different ways. The food-as-culture crowd seemed to embrace Night + Market Song, and I can't say that I blamed them. I mostly used Pok Pok LA as a bar. It was open late, the gin and tonic with makrut lime was brilliant, and the Singha beer on tap was tooth-numbingly cold. And the bar snacks — grilled dried cuttlefish, peanuts fried with lime leaf and chile, chewy strips of grilled boar collar, the famous chicken wings sticky with fish sauce — were delicious.

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Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings,
Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings, (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Pok Pok LA was a splendid place to end the evening after a show, nursing Japanese whisky, listening to '70s Thai R&B music and staring out at the neon lit pagoda across the street. It was my teenage fantasy of what a Chinatown bar might be.

So when Ricker announced a couple of weeks ago that Pok Pok LA would be shutting down, that business at the north end of Chinatown was never quite as robust as he'd hoped, I felt as if I was losing a perfect Third Place, something more than a catfish salad and a tamarind whisky sour on the way home. It hadn't been open that long, but a lot of my life had spun out there — the japes about the fancy vinegars and rambutan charcoal were meant as gentle kidding. I never thought the restaurant would go away.

On the night before closing, Pok Pok LA was more crowded than I'd seen it since its first days, and people waited hours outside for a shot at a last meal. Providence's Michael Cimarusti was holding court at a front table, and Guerrilla Tacos' Wes Avila was distributing whisky shots. Cookbook writer Andrea Nguyen came over to the table to report that Ricker was doing the catfish dish Cha ca La Vong correctly; that he had dragged her into the kitchen to point out the house-made khao mahk, the fermented sticky rice that is an important part of the fish's marinade.

Ricker himself came over at one point to note that the top-floor dining room he could never quite fill might be too apt a metaphor, the heavy weight from above crushing the rest of the operation.

The upstairs dining area.
The upstairs dining area. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

"The landlord suggested that we turn the second floor into a nightclub," Ricker said. "I hate nightclubs."

I got a jackfruit sandwich and one last whisky sour for the road. (I wasn't driving.) I'm betting Ricker's nightclub might have been fun.

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