This is the Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables.
Lots of restaurants have crazy wait times. Long before he took home the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest, chef Andy Ricker's flagship restaurant Pok Pok had lines so robust that he opened a caddy corner bar — the Whiskey Soda Lounge — to control spillover. Eater caught up with Pok Pok GM Matthew Adams, a veteran of Seattle's Café Campagne who first entered the Ricker empire by helping to launch Ping, about how the WSL has eased the wait, his favorite regulars, Beard expectations, and why the kitchen can't make you a fresh roll.
It's 8pm on a Saturday. How long's the wait?
I would say it's over an hour. But the nature of the wait has changed in the last year and a half. Before, there wasn't really a great place to wait, but now we have the Whiskey Soda Lounge that provides a comfortable place in Portland's terrible weather to hang out and enjoy some food and drinks. That has changed the wait, which I think is a relief for a lot of people. Before, there weren't many options on Division. There was Matchbox [Lounge], and a few spots up the street, but it was mainly a crowd of people out front and it wasn't a pleasant experience to wait that long in the rain. As long as you check in at Pok Pok first, we get your name and give you an estimated quote time, and then you can wait at our Whiskey Soda Lounge, and they will let you know there when your table is ready.
What percentage of people end up staying at Whiskey Soda?
It's not a huge percentage, but the bar is developing its own following. They do a late-night menu and do offer the pad Thai that people are so often seeking at Pok Pok. That has gotten its own draw as a late-night spot, since we close at 10pm here. But the percentage, maybe five percent? I think once you've invested that much time on a wait list, most people want to follow through on it.
What about special treatment for VIPs?
No. There's a very short list of friends that may get some special treatment, but as far as VIPs and celebrities, they're very happy to be here as well, and we treat them with the same product, same services, same environment. There may be a tour — every once in a while, we give a tour of the kitchen. Are you allowed to name-drop? When working for Andy, in these three years, I have seen more celebrities than I've seen in my entire life. But I think that's part of something that makes it really special to work at Pok Pok. What we're doing here appeals to such a broad audience that we get this greater number of celebrities, which is flattering. But it's also flattering that we get the entire spectrum of people, background, ethnicities. I see it as a form of fuel, that so many different types of people want to be here. If you're in a fine dining establishment, you might not have that broad appeal.
Tell us about some of your favorite regulars.
Again, there's a wide spread of regulars. We have a great pair of girls that come in, for two years now, every Friday night — I can count on one hand the times they have not been here on Friday nights. They stick to the same meal each time. We have that type of regular that comes in religiously with the same experience each time, then we have another type of regular that will come in with a different group every time they come in. That's another level of flattery, where they want to show off knowledge of this little spot. And then we have a lot of under-the-radar regulars who get takeout.
So did you guys know when the folks from the James Beard Foundation were here?
No. We didn't know specifically [who were] the Beard folks. There were some people we knew were loosely affiliated, but as far as judging goes, no.
Has there been an uptick in business since Andy won the Beard?
Not an uptick, I would say there's a slightly new element: It's a slightly more moneyed crowd, a slightly more sophisticated crowd. I think it's a different type of group that respond to the Beard Awards: They're more experienced in food, more experienced with dining.
What are some of the challenges you face regularly?
The biggest challenge we face as far as customers go is expectation. I think it's a natural response for people to want to label things and understand things based on previous experience. And we are a bit of a departure for a lot of American diners. A lot of people are not comfortable eating with their hands... people aren't necessarily used to peeling their own shrimp or getting the fish with the head and tail on. But the broader expectation is that people like to label us as a Thai restaurant — your color-coded curries, pad Thai, pad see ew, that sort of thing is what people expect when they walk in — and that's not what we offer. Battling that expectation is difficult sometimes.
Do you get people explicitly asking, "Can you make me a fresh roll?" Yes. And do you? We try to direct them to something that's comparable. But we can't just come up with a spring roll, or come up with a pad Thai all of a sudden. There are limitations to our kitchen. ... But I think most people, once they get into Pok Pok and are into the swing of the experience, they pretty much let go and let it happen.
What are your personal favorite things on the menu?
They change quite often. One of my first loves at Pok Pok was the muu paa kham waan, the boar collar. It's not for the faint of heart as far as the spice level goes, but there's a balance between the sweetness of the marinade and the meat, the charcoal grill, and the bright spice of the chili lime sauce. I've loved it for years now. The other is the yam samun phrai, which is a Thai herbal salad with a lot of herbs, shredded root vegetables.
What about when you're not at work?
We cook at home a lot. But we do end up at Gruner; Tasty N Sons is really comfortable and easy food. St. Jack now and then. And I just tried Little Bird last night, which was wonderful — we'll definitely be back there.
And finally, what's your must-have Gatekeeper tool?
I would say the greatest tool I bring to Pok Pok would be maintaining a sense of calm and rational thought, open-mindedness during really stressful periods of time. But it's easy to do that here for two reasons: We have a great staff, and they're constantly trying to learn more. The other thing that makes it easy is that under the veneer of whimsy and casual dining, there's some serious procedures, processes, systems in place that have been fine-tuned in the five years we've been in business, that allow us to serve between 500 and 600 people on a Saturday. It just makes it easy.