'Nobody goes there anymore'

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Nick Roumel

I told someone I loved about a highly regarded restaurant in her city, Portland, Oregon. She just sighed and shook her head.

I immediately thought of Yogi Berra.

Berra is in the Hall of Fame for baseball, but many know him chiefly through his mystical pronouncements – “When there’s a fork in the road, take it,” and “You can observe a lot by watching,” among them. My favorite may be, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” This was his dismissal of a popular restaurant.

Which leads me to the theme of this column: popularity breeds contempt. Whether it’s restaurants, music, or something else, some people become averse to things simply because they are popular.

So that’s why Ms. Portlandian, when I told her I’d wanted to have dinner at Pok-Pok for ten years since I’d read an article about it in Food & Wine, shrugged and said “There’s better Thai.”

What I said: I told her all the reasons I thought it was top-notch. She listened but appeared unmoved.

What I wanted to say, akin to a deposition, as imagined:

Q: When did you decide there was better Thai in Portland? Was it when it was it opened in 2005?

A: Nope.

Q: When it was mentioned in Gourmet Magazine online in 2006?

A: No ...

Q: How about 2007. That’s when The Oregonian named it “Restaurant of the Year,” and Food & Wine called Pok-Pok’s signature chicken wings, deep-fried with Vietnamese fish sauce, sugar and garlic, one of the ten best restaurant dishes in the United States?

A: Not yet, but I was starting to get irritated.

Q: Do you recall 2008 and 2009? Pok-Pok was praised in numerous national media, from the Food Network’s Diners and Dives, to the New York Times (twice), and featured in Gourmet Magazine’s “126 Restaurants that are Worth the Money?”

A: I remember. It was insufferable. The place was overrun with tourists.

Q: Chef Andy Ricker won a James Beard “Best Chef” Award in 2011, and was an outstanding chef semi-finalist in 2015. How were you feeling then?

A: Like I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. It was like when Taylor Swift won a Grammy.

Q: Actually she’s won ten. What kind of music do you listen to, by the way?

A: I used to like FKA Twigs, until “Video Girl” started to get some airplay. Now she disgusts me.

Q: In 2013 Bon Appetit named Pok-Pok one of the 20 most influential restaurants in America. They wrote, “Ricker cooks laap pet issan, muu paa kham waan, khao soi, and other northern and northeastern Thai dishes at his casual, bicoastal spots. And people wait in line to get in, ordering rounds of fiery salads and fragrant grilled pork neck as if they were chips and salsa (and washing them down with inventive cocktails). Are the dishes ‘authentic’? I have no idea, and I don’t care. By going beyond pad thai and green curry, Ricker opened up a world of flavors—and a world-class cuisine—to a generation that didn’t even know they needed them.”

A: See? That’s what I mean. It’s not ‘authentic.’

Q: That’s not actually what the article said; but let me ask this ... where do you find better Thai?

A: There’s that food truck in the parking lot off Morrison, for one.

Q: Is that the one where you order by picture?

A: LOOK! I’m sick of it! Pok-Pok this, Chef Ricker that, amazing food that everyone loves; can’t I just have a little spot with my friends that no one knows about?

Q: Well, don’t you think people will find out about it if it’s that good?

A: Not me ... I’ll be on to something else by then.

Q: I have no further questions.

Ms. Court Reporter, thank you for your time. I’m not going to bother ordering a transcript. Want to go get some Thai instead?

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.

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