Andy Ricker opened a takeout shack with a funny name in 2005 with the simple goal of introducing Portlanders to the excellent street food he'd eaten during his travels in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Pok Pok rapidly became one of the city's most popular eateries, expanding into first the basement and then the main floor of the house whose lot it shared. In 2007 it was named The Oregonian's restaurant of the year.
Last Tuesday, Ricker and three partners opened a new restaurant on the ground floor of Chinatown's long-vacant Hung Far Low building: Ping serves a cornucopia of grilled meats on skewers (including chicken hearts, pork collar, quail eggs and dried Thai cuttlefish, along with more familiar parts) and other small plates in categories like "steamed," "boiled," "noodles" and "snacks."
WW spoke with Ricker and one of his partners, Kurt Huffman, a former chef-cum-businessman who manages the restaurant's financial and administrative operations, about restaurant economics, the Hung Far Low sign and Pok Pok's ever-popular Ike's fish sauce wings.
WW: You built a very successful restaurant from scratch during a boom economy. Now you're opening a much more ambitious restaurant during a downturn. Are you crazy?
Andy Ricker: With any kind of business, you don't just open it. You plan it, you finance it, and then you build it and you open it. So this was more than a year coming, and the wheels were all set in motion well before we had a complete shit show in the economy. It's partially bad luck that things went the way they did, but having said that, we could have pulled the plug on it at any given time. But we feel like we negotiated a lease that's favorable to us that would not be possible if we were negotiating in a good economy.... Our intention was to come in ahead of the curve in this neighborhood, anticipating a lot of the things that are going to be happening down here in the future. I don't think we're crazy.
Kurt Huffman: An economic downturn is a great time to look at opening places in commercial properties, because the commercial-properties market is hit three to four times worse than residential property markets.... We have a great lease.
AR: We don't have to be a rollicking success right out of the gate to be OK. If it comes down to it, and the economy tanks and nobody's got any money at all, Kurt will stand behind the bar and I'll stand in the kitchen and we'll serve the five people that come in each day a bowl of soup. And then we'll sleep in the loft up there.
How do you describe what you're doing here?
AR: The best thing I can say is "Southeast Asian pub food." There's people who want to call this an izakaya, but it's not an izakaya.... We're doing Asian pub food, basically, so in every country in Southeast Asia there's something that doesn't look anything like this, maybe. But the spirit is that it's an either late-night or early-morning gathering place where you can get small bites or coffee or tea or booze, or whatever you want. In Japan it's izakaya, in Singapore it's cafe tinh, in Vietnam it might be a bia hoi stand, in Malaysia it's a cafe, in Thailand it's a pub. The spirit of what we're trying to do is that. We're not trying to be a fusion of those things.... I hate the word "fusion."
KH: I think that idea has also dictated a lot of the way the restaurant is laid out, our policies. Obviously everyone wants to have reservations, but the whole idea is that this is a neighborhood restaurant.... The idea is that this is a place where you come in after work and it's fast, it's quick, it's lots of flavor and it's inexpensive.
Will the Hung Far Low sign go up again?
AR:The short answer is yes, but there are no guarantees. It's going to cost a fortune to go back up. Right now the sign company is quoting $25,000. PDC [Portland Development Commission] has expressed interest in helping put it back up no matter what. The landlady is ultimately responsible. It's not our call.
Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings at Pok Pok have attracted an obsessive cult following. What will Ping's wing be?
AR: I don't really want there to be a Pok Pok wing here. That was a surprise. I just thought it would be another dish. I don't think that we have anything on the menu here that is going to be the thing that people obsess about. Our hope is, and my hope was with Pok Pok too, that there is a favorite for everybody on the menu, and it wouldn't be the same for everybody.
KH: It presents constraints to have something that's so popular on the menu.
AR: You can't take the wings off the menu at Pok Pok, ever. It's a tremendous amount of work. We go through hundreds of pounds a week. Our fryer gets destroyed on a daily basis doing it, but I'm certainly not complaining. It's great to have something you know you're going to sell 30 orders a day. And if the economy really goes tits up and I can't do anything else, I'll turn the shack into a wing shack. I'll just put a hood in there and some deep-fryers and I'll sell wings all day.
Is Ping named for the beautiful young duck in the children's book?
AR:No. Ping is a Thai word that means "grilled." "To grill," or "toast."
You advertised on Craigslist for yakitori cooks. Did you find any?
AR: We didn't. Our main grill cook is a guy who worked at Pok Pok before. He has experience working our satay grill there. We didn't get a single reply from a bona fide yakitori cook. I think I'd have to go to Canada or Japan to find somebody at this point.
KH: That's something we didn't bring up about opening in this economy. We had to take our ad off of Craigslist for the general hiring. We had 1,000 responses in 72 hours. And this was an anonymous ad post.... We were able to pick and choose who we brought in.
How long did it take you to go from having the takeout stand to opening the restaurant?
AR: We kind of went in stages. I opened the shack in November of 2005, and I opened the downstairs dining room in November 2006, and then the upstairs dining room in November of 2007.
Given that experience, do you have any advice for people looking to open a restaurant with little capital?
AR: Start with a little space. Do research. Make sure you have a good product, and never underestimate how difficult it's going to be, or how much it's going to cost. Just opening that shack with six items on the menu, it took me six months from the day I purchased the property to the day I opened the shack. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, but it was tremendously hard. I think a lot of people, especially first-time restaurant owners, have this very romantic vision of what running a restaurant is going to be like. And it's not that, I promise you.
KH:Whatever you think it is, it's not that. It's probably shittier.
AR: My advice is this: Do as much of the work yourself as you can, because you can save a huge amount of money. Make sure you do it right the first time, so that it's going to last at least six months, and make sure you open with some money in the bank still. Overfinance yourself. And make sure you're opening in a place that makes sense and with a product that makes sense.
KH: You look at Pok Pok, and Pok Pok breaks every rule of the book.
AR: I did not basically have a financial plan at all. I was introducing a kind of food that basically does not exist in this country, I put it in a neighborhood that was not yet booming. I opened up with $60 in my bank account, I maxed out every credit card, I mortgaged a house and then sold it. I did everything wrong. But I knew the food was good.
Ping, 102 NW 4th Ave., pingpdx.com. 4-10 pm Monday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.