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From West Coast to East: Pok Pok & Whiskey Soda Lounge

December 30, 2014

I remember a distant time long ago when I associated Thai food with orange colored pad thai noodles that were more sweet than they were anything else.  Because of these awfully wrong associations, I avoided Thai food for an unfairly long amount of time, choosing other East Asian cuisines instead.  It wasn’t until college did I finally started to explore Thai food and happily discovered that there is so much more to it than just those orange lifeless noodles I knew as a kid.  Lucky for me, my exploration of Thai food was able to continue and expand in New York which has a rather abundant collection of Thai restaurants ranging from those buried deep into Queens to the more upscale fusion variety.  One of the newer additions to the scene is the famous Portland Thai hot spot, Pok Pok.  

As with all newcomers with a stellar reputation, Pok Pok was mobbed from day 1 and the tiny space that it occupied on Columbia Street in Brooklyn near Red Hook didn’t help either.  A bit scared by the prospect of waiting in line for hours, I didn’t make it there until over 2 years after they first opened.  My first encounter with Pok Pok was actually at Whiskey Soda Lounge, the cocktail bar that now occupies the original Pok Pok space after the restaurant expanded to a slightly larger space half a block away.  The bar serves a few select dishes from the main restaurant as nibbles as well as a few specials only found there.

We stopped by Whiskey Soda Lounge on a Sunday night this fall in search of a light dinner.  A few patrons were in the lounge, enjoying a drink and watching football on the TV.  Neither of us were particularly hungry so we started with a plate of plaa lek thawt krob, deep fried anchovies with Shark sri racha hot sauce.

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These little nibbles were crunchy and instead of painstakingly dipping each piece into the hot sauce, we decided to just pour the sauce over the fish – a little messier but so much more efficient.  The anchovies were particularly delicious washed down with a bottle of Stiegl radler, a grapefruit flavored light beer that has now become our favorite.

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The beer and a side of sticky rice came in handy for our next two dishes, the yam plaa meuk and Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings.  The yam plaa meuk, a light poached squid salad tossed with chile, garlic, tomatoes, Chinese celery, onion, mint and cilantro, might have looked harmless but these packed a fiery punch that hit my mouth only after a few bites.  This dish had me shoveling sticky rice into my mouth to alleviate the pain.

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Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings can be ordered regular or spicy.  And since we were already in pain from the squid salad, why not continue the fire by making these spicy.  The well seasoned outside was sticky and sweet, and even though my mouth was already on fire, I couldn’t help but lick my fingers for some of more that sauce.

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My second meal at Pok Pok was much tamer heat wise but just as delicious.  This time around, we decided to properly experience the full menu by visiting Pok Pok itself.  Luckily, stopping by on a Monday night at 8.30PM meant that there was hardly a wait at the still often packed restaurant.

In order to try some new items, we decided to forgo the wings for hoi twat, crispy broken crepe.  These were stuffed with plump steamed mussels and served on a bed of bean sprouts and chives.  A dip in the Shark sri racha sauce for a bit of heat, this street vendor specialty was light yet filling.

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Both fans of eggplant, the yam makheua yao was an obvious choice.  Smoked grilled long eggplants were served with a spicy dressing made with Thai chilies, lime, fish sauce and palm sugar and topped with boiled egg, dried shrimp and shallots.  The sweetness and smokiness of the tender eggplants were well balanced by the sour pungent sauce and the savory bites from the dried shrimp.  The dressing was surprisingly tame which was nice considering what was to come.

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And came was a fiery plate of laap pet isaan, spicy northeastern Thai chopped duck salad.  Ground duck is sauteed with lemongrass, mint, chilies and fish sauce with a little duck skin and liver for extra depth of flavor.

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The salad came with a plate of fresh herbs and cabbage leaves for us to make rolls.  A little bit of duck and a few sprigs of Thai herbs to cool off our tongue, these were punishingly spicy yet extremely refreshing.

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We needed a little more help to cool off our mouth and what better than some creamy sweets to do so, like the coconut ice cream sandwich?  Instead of your typical ice cream sandwich, the ones at Pok Pok looked more like a hot dog.  Four scoops of coconut jackfruit ice cream arrived tucked inside a sweet bun and were topped with peanuts, sweet sticky rice, condensed milk and chocolate syrup.  Split between two people, this was just the right portion to satisfy our sweet tooth.

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Having just had a small sample of dishes from the menu, I was definitely hooked for more.  Perhaps a plate of the papaya salad or a clay pot of pork belly and Carolina white prawns with some of Ike’s Vietnamese wings to start.  And of course, a bottle of Stiegl Radler can only make the meal even better.

Pok Pok NY | 117 Columbia Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231 |  http://www.pokpokny.com/

Whiskey Soda Lounge NY | 115 Columbia Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 | http://www.whiskeysodalounge-ny.com/

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