|Tamarind whiskey sour|
From the start, Pok Pok has been in a tough place in L.A. Owner Andy Ricker kind of confused everyone first with a ticketed reservation policy via Tock that seemed appropriate only for a wildly popular place like Trois Mec. Customers were also confused by the 5% service charge that was one of the first of its kind in Los Angeles, leaving people not sure whether to tip 10%, 15% or what in addition to the 5%. He talked to Playboy today about the service charge issue and what the new minimum wage will mean to restaurants.
Though Ricker later said he loves L.A. and meant no disrespect, the headline "Pok Pok's Tipping Experiment Didn't Work and Chef And Ricker Blames L.A." made it seem like L.A. isn't ready to treat its restaurant employees fairly, which is probably true. But if restaurants need to charge more to pay decently, it's probably easiest to just fold the costs into the menu prices. Though Pok Pok has now ditched both the ticketing system and the service charge, here are three other reasons it could still have issues gaining traction in the city with the biggest and most established Thai population in the U.S.
1) The size: It's still not clear how it's going to consistently fill the vast upstairs and downstairs space. Pok Pok is not only bigger than any other Thai restaurant in town, it's as big as the Chinese banquet and dim sum places that survive on weddings and family gatherings, not couples and small groups of friends. It's big enough to house the crowds that line up in Portland and Manhattan, but in a part of L.A. that's maybe not quite yet ready to be a happening nighttime restaurant destination.
2) The menu: Like Night + Market, Pok Pok's specialty is Northern and Northeastern Thai cooking. After the Pok Pok's Phat Thai noodle shop opened in Chinatown with middling to positive reviews, I was excited to see what Andy Ricker could bring to L.A. that we didn't already have.
The verdict? After just one dinner, I'm not qualified to do a full review yet, but with so many great Thai restaurants in L.A., I'm just not dying to rush back. The signature roasted chicken was indeed nicely grilled and caramelized and used a much better bird than the average joint, and the fried larb patties had a good, complex flavor. But the server didn't seem concerned that we didn't finish the blah Jaw Phak Kad mustard greens and pork ribs, which seem to have now left the menu.
Why not offer the Phat Thai noodle menu too, so customers can have a wider choice of dishes like their excellent Phat Sii Ew?
3) The bar: That tamarind whiskey sour is as tart and refreshing as it was in Portland the first time I tried it, but I'm not sure I want it while I'm eating dinner at long banquet tables in the dining room. Beer seems like the best match for a spicy meal, but I might stop by if there was a dedicated cocktail space.
Why not turn part of the upstairs into a more intimate, funky cocktail lounge with the drinking snacks menu, and encourage people to come even if it's just for drinks?
L.A. loves Thai food, but it also loves value and lack of pretensions. And noodles. If Pok Pok can strike the right balance, the city will welcome it with even wider arms.