I’ve been obsessed by chicken wings all summer. No, not the pepper sauce-drenched Buffalo-style wings offered by bars, franchise restaurants and fast food chains everywhere. The wings of my dreams are served only at the celebrated Pok Pok/Whiskey Soda Lounge in Portland, Oregon.
Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings are like nothing I’ve ever eaten before – savory, salty, sweet, sticky and totally addictive. From the moment I first tasted them in June, I knew I would have to find a way to make something similar at home. I just can’t be flying off to Portland whenever I get the craving, after all.
Pok Pok is an eccentric, crowded and insanely popular restaurant serving Thai street food in a hip Southeast Portland neighborhood. The wings, though, are Vietnamese through and through. They’re based on a recipe from the homeland of the eponymous Ike, the daytime grill cook.
The restaurant’s menu describes the wings as being marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep-fried and tossed in caramelized fish sauce and garlic before serving. It specifies Phu Quoc fish sauce from the island of the same name in Vietnam.
Sounds simple. But of course it never is. The elusive balance of flavors is critical in the most basic dishes. So I went looking for some hints.
Food & Wine Magazine, which named the wings to its Top 10 Restaurant Dishes of 2007, offered a recipe that called for superfine sugar and that just seemed wrong. Palm sugar is not that hard to find in natural foods stores anymore. One Chow.com member from Vermont even proposed a recipe using maple syrup and butter – imaginative, yes, but not even remotely Asian, much less Vietnamese.
On my first attempt, I tried the magazine recipe, substituting palm sugar for the superfine and using some Thai Kitchen fish sauce I had on hand. It was OK but didn’t come close to the real thing. The fish sauce was too strong and the dish was missing the lilt of the original. Plus frying, although authentic, is not really my forte. I never use enough oil and I hate the cleanup afterward.
Several tries later, I’ve come up with a recipe that comes a lot closer to Ike’s and uses a cooking style I prefer. Switching to the very good Viet Huong brand fish sauce, also known as Three Crabs, made all the difference. It’s delicate and far more complex than the Thai Kitchen, although it’s a product of Thailand, too. Vietnamese cooking authority Andrea Nguyen gives it her stamp of approval. I also added a couple of tablespoons of lime juice to give the sauce the zing I felt was missing in the magazine recipe.
To cook the wings, I turned to the grill. It doesn’t deliver the crisp character of frying, but the slight smokiness is a pleasant addition and I don’t have to mess with all that hot oil. I like to think that it’s in the spirit of Pok Pok, where the aroma of grilling meat and poultry wafts through the helter-skelter arrangement of dining areas.
These wings may not be Ike’s but they’re unforgettable, nonetheless.
½ cup Vietnamese fish sauce
½ cup granulated palm sugar
4 garlic cloves, divided use
2 tablespoons lime juice
3 pounds chicken wings, split at the joints, tips discarded
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped mint
In a small saucepan, combine the fish sauce and palm sugar. Warm over low heat, stirring occasionally, just until sugar has melted. Add 2 cloves of the garlic, crushed, and lime juice. Place wings in a refrigerator container large enough to hold them all. Pour sauce over the wings, toss to coat, cover and refrigerate for 3 hours. Toss wings again a couple of times while they’re marinating to evenly coat the wings.
While grill is heating to medium high, mince the remaining 2 cloves of garlic. Heat the oil in a small saucepan and fry the garlic over medium heat just until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Discard oil and wipe out pan.
Remove chicken from marinade with tongs, allowing excess to drip back into the container. Cook wings on oiled grill over direct heat for 12-15 minutes, turning frequently and lowering the heat if they start to burn. Meanwhile, pour marinade into the saucepan and simmer over medium high heat until thick and syrupy, about 5 minutes.
When wings are done, pile on a platter, pour syrupy sauce over them and toss. Garnish with fried garlic, cilantro and mint. Serve immediately.
NOTE: Pok Pok also serves a spicy version of these wings. A dash of sriracha ought to do the trick if you’d prefer a spicier rendition.