“If you would have asked me two years ago — right after we opened Pok Pok Ny — 'Do you want to do another major restaurant?’” Pok Pok chef and owner Andy Ricker says. “My answer would have been, ‘Hell no.’”
Fast forward two years and Ricker is drinking iced tea at Ten Ren Tea in a bi-level mall called Far East Plaza in L.A.’s Chinatown, a neighborhood just north of Downtown proper. He’s sublet an apartment nearby and is about to open two restaurants in the neighborhood. First up will be Pok Pok Phat Thai, an outpost of the same shop he opened in New York in 2012; it’ll open in a few weeks a few doors down from Ten Ren later this month.
That Ricker’s first location will be here in Far East Plaza is in a way fitting. The plaza was built in 1978 and has been called the “first modern ethnic shopping mall in America,” as if “ethnic” applied only to certain enclaves of the American population rather than to most of it. It was originally envisioned as a grand food court, and anyone who grew up around here might fondly remember the duck at Sam Woo Cafe, or the scallion pancakes that Mandarin Deli once dished out by the dozen to lunchtime crowds. A branch of Pho 79 had a long run here before it was replaced by Pho 97; the restaurant changed hands again recently and it’s now called Pho Asiana. Longtime resident Kim Chuy is still popular for its Chiu Chow noodles, and Qin has its Shaanxi-style dishes (“It’s really good,” Ricker says).
The plaza has thus always been in flux, but over the last few years, as the epicenter of Chinese culture and food moved eastward to the San Gabriel Valley, the plaza — and Chinatown — lost some of the kinetic energy it once had.
And then Roy Choi moved his rice bowl–focused Chego to this plaza last year. In doing so, he essentially lit a fire under the mall: anyone thinking about opening a restaurant in L.A. is now thinking about opening in Chinatown. Scoops, the ice cream shop, answered the smoke signals and moved in earlier this year. Cognoscenti Coffee, with perhaps the country's first mobile Modbar, is now popped up inside Scoops. And the EggSlut crew, too, is joining the party with a ramen shop.
Which brings us back to Ricker. Pok Pok Phat Thai will open just steps away from Chego, in what was once the home of a bánh cuốn specialist named Hoan Kiem.
“Things settled in New York” is how Ricker explains why he changed his mind about opening another restaurant. The impetus behind opening in L.A. in particular had quite a lot to do with the proximity to the ingredients he needs for his restaurants. The city, after all, is home to the largest Thai population outside Thailand and an ever bustling Thai Town. Accordingly, it’s one of the very few places in the country where a warehouse like LAX-C — affectionately nicknamed the Thai Costco, for reasons that are self-explanatory — could exist.
Indeed, being able to source ingredients “definitely had a influence on why we decided to come here,” Ricker says. “LAX-C imports large quantities of stuff directly from Thailand. They actually have a lot of things that I try to get in Portland from purveyors, but can’t. They have really good quality palm sugar. That shit's hard to get. I anticipate us actually probably doing truckloads of stuff up to Portland once we get established here.” Sometime down the line, Ricker hopes to work with LAX-C to import other ingredients, like different grades of ground chiles (hot and mild; toasted and untoasted).
At the moment, ingredients and most everything else seem to be coming together for Pok Pok Phat Thai. Ricker says it will have a similar noodle-intensive menu as the New York outpost, “plus or minus one or two dishes.” The final count depends on the space: the Far East Plaza shop has a bigger kitchen than the one in New York, but unlike New York, there isn’t a deep fryer here, nor is there alcohol. Seating will be at counters and at picnic tables in the communal space between Pok Pok Phat Thai and Scoops.
“It's the same M.O. when we went to New York,” he says, “Which was to find a small space to plant our flag, introduce the brand, establish relationships. It’s not going to be a big moneymaker for us. That’s not the point. The point is to introduce what we got going and become part of the community.”
Ricker is mindful of what could happen after he opens. “There’s a critical mass that happens with this kind of thing,” he says, noting his current and future plaza neighbors. “Hopefully us coming in will attract other solid food-based things and just get this place popping.”
After Pok Pok Phat Thai warms up the crowd, Pok Pok L.A. will make its entrance. Pok Pok L.A. will be a 6,000-square-foot restaurant and bar and will open next spring in another storied Chinatown complex, Mandarin Plaza. Likely, Pok Pok L.A. won’t so much get that plaza popping as it will get it booming.
And because he’s not nearly busy enough, Ricker is working on his various food products: Som, his drinking vinegar, and a line of charcoal. There will be grocery store chicken wings, too, possibly, if he figures out how to pack and sell it successfully at a Whole Foods or Safeway. All things to help support the restaurants, because running any restaurant — especially one that too often has to contend with the presumption that its food ought to be inexpensive regardless of the quality of the ingredients and the value of human labor — is not easy.
And then: more restaurants?
“After we finish L.A.,” Ricker says, “My answer probably will be, ‘Hell no.’”
Pok Pok Phat Thai will open this month (December) in the Far East Plaza in L.A.'s Chinatown, 727 N. Broadway. Pok Pok L.A. will open next spring, also in Chinatown, at Mandarin Plaza, 970 N. Broadway, L.A.
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