On Monday, local restaurateur Andy Ricker opened SW Portland’s first Pok Pok Wing, his brand of fast-casual restaurants serving the famous Vietnamese fish sauce wings. The restaurant, in the former Humdinger Drive-In location, is Ricker’s first real professional foray into SW Portland — the Pok Pok founder says the restaurant was always designed for expansion, from its days in New York to its brief stint in the Portland airport. Still, the wing counter is probably the closest Portland will get to another Pok Pok anytime soon. The chef gave Eater PDX the details on the 10-seat spot, why he goes cash-free, and why he’s over opening full-service restaurants.
What was appealing to you about Humdinger’s location?
We wanted to be in SW Portland. It’s small, so the rent’s low — rents are so high, it’s absurd; it’s hard to run a restaurant in the best of times. This is a counter-service restaurant, and a counter-service restaurant should inherently be viable out of a small space. Pok Pok Wing has existed in various locations since 2011 — first in NY, then at the airport, the cart, now, at our east side location. They all have the same thing in common: They’re in small spaces, with limited seating, a small kitchen, in existing locations. I’m done with opening full-service restaurants for the time being. I have no interest in doing so.
Why SW Portland?
We’ve been focused on close-in neighborhoods, downtown being the final frontier. Now, the underserved parts of the metropolitan area are where it’s at. People have been dropping by every day wondering when we’re going to open. As we’re speaking, three different cars have pulled up. Barbur is a main thoroughfare, a place where we can serve the delivery apps — Caviar, Amazon, Doordash — which is great. Portland didn’t have a delivery culture; it wasn’t until the apps came along.
People around here are happy that we’re here. Some people were like, “How dare you take over the Humdinger?” But we didn’t come in here and demand they go out of business. They didn’t want to be in business anymore. If someone came in and tried to do a cheap burger place, it wouldn’t have been Humdinger.
What do you think is Pok Pok Wing’s most underrated dish?
I think the ju pa bao, the pork chop bun, is one of my favorite dishes of all time, anywhere. There’s beauty in that simplicity. It’s basically a ubiquitous, iconic street food in Macau (on south coast of China). Macau was a colony of Portugal for 400 years; the cuisine that developed is pretty unique, and if you look at this dish, it’s a very good expression of the fusion of two cultures.
There’s been a lot of stuff in the press about people not taking cash and how that’s somehow classist or not fair. We’re not trying to exclude anybody. The number-one (priority) is a safe work environment for our employees. If you’ve ever been in the situation where someone has come in and robbed you at gunpoint, you’ll know what I mean. Since we’ve been here, people have tried to break in multiple times. If you don’t have cash on the premises, it lowers people’s desire to break in. People think accepting cash is cheap; it’s not. We’re trying to pay people a living wage, while selling food for a cheap price. This is how we can save money but also afford to pay people a living wage. No one here is working minimum wage.
How is not taking cash cheaper?
Whatever you have in cash, it isn’t like you have $100 in the drawer and that stays in the drawer. You have to have banks, you have to change banks, and you also place stress on the employees because they have to be responsible for the bank. There’s time spent when mistakes are made — an accountant, who makes two-or-three times what a restaurant worker makes, has to figure out where that $10 went. It just doesn’t make sense. At Pok Pok, we’re willing to do it because it’s a higher ticket average. You have to come up with creative ways to spend less. The high 90th percentile of people walking in here have some sort of card. Get ready for it; we’re moving toward a cashless society.
What should people know going in?
It’s tiny. We have 10 stools on the inside; it’s a really tight space. Until the weather gets better, we’re primarily a pick-up spot. People can come in, but it’s counter-service only. There’s a big patio we’re going to fix up, so in the summer there will be plenty of places for people to sit.
You mentioned that you’re over running a full-service restaurant. Why is that?
Right now, there’s all the costs associated with running a restaurant, and the labor pool available for the restaurant work these days is pretty small. We have four full-service restaurants already, and it’s hard enough to keep those running; the thought of opening another one fills me with fear and loathing. I’m getting old. I’m trying to come up with ways to make my life easier, not more complicated. The actual physical act of getting a restaurant open, no worries. But you have to manage things when things get difficult. Your build-out costs, the cost of doing business every day — you’re looking at this herculean effort just to make a profit. I’m happy with what we’ve got.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
• Pok Pok WIng [Official]
• The Latest Pok Pok Wing Just Opened in SW Portland [EPDX]