The story of Pok Pok goes as follows: Andy Ricker is a chef who fell in love with Thai food during repeated trips to the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and eventually set out to do it himself. Pok Pok started as a rotisserie grill take-out business in the driveway of a house, and over time expanded, in somewhat haphazard fashion, into an actual restaurant. "Authenticity," a hot-button word recently, comes up often in discussions of Pok Pok because (a) Ricker is white; and (b) notwithstanding (a), the food at Pok Pok is regularly praised as being more "authentic" than what you will find at most typical Thai restaurants in the U.S.
The issue of "authenticity" gets a lot of attention lately. Is it "authentic" when Ivan Orkin, a white guy from New York, goes to Japan to open a traditional ramen shop? Is it "authentic" when Grant Achatz and crew set out to do a Thai menu for three months at their everlasting pop-up restaurant, Next? Why don't we ask the same questions about authenticity when they do a menu of Escoffier French classics from a hundred years ago?
What about when a Burmese-American and Jewish-American couple start serving dinner out of a hole-in-the-wall Chinese take-out shop in San Francisco's Mission District, sometimes doing contemporary adaptations of Chinese-American classics prepared by a Korean-American chef raised in Oklahama? (Note: if you haven't yet, do check out the Mission Street Food book; it's often a little too pleased with itself, but is nonetheless a fascinating read for a multitude of reasons, the food being only one of them). And surely there's nothing "authentic" about Torrisi Italian Specialties serving up lamb's tongue gyro salads and curried cavatelli?
"Authenticity" is the mantra of many a typical food snob, and yet it's never entirely clear exactly what it means. There is a great piece in the Lucky Peach magazine by Todd Kliman called "The Problem of Authenticity" (sorry, not available online) which persuasively makes the case that it doesn't mean much at all. So many cuisines, even in their "native" forms, are capable of so many infinite variations, and so many "traditional" dishes are actually themselves the result of historical cross-cultural mash-ups that would today go by the sobriquet of "fusion" dishes, that labeling any one particular iteration as "authentic" is a fool's errand.
Kliman suggests, for instance, that Torrisi, with its attention to fresh, local ingredients and its effort to honor the foods of its immediate surroundings or "micro-culture," is authentically Italian in spirit, a different kind of faithfulness than to particular ingredients or their traditional combinations. As Torrisi chef Mario Carbone puts it, "Italian food is not sauce and cheese and pasta. It's an attitude. It's an approach."
Karen Leibowitz of Mission Chinese Food has a somewhat different take:
We feel authorized to make dishes outside our families' ethnic traditions, and we freely mix different cultures' ingredients and techniques, because we like to eat delicious food, wherever it comes from. After a while, sticking with 'authentic' food from your own identity is boring. (Especially if you're Jewish.)
All of which is a long way of saying: I'm not going to be the one to say whether or not Pok Pok and its chef Andy Ricker are serving "authentic" Thai food.