Football Saturdays in this house are spent in front of our Vizio big screen TV, flipping through the many college games still to be found freely available (this fact sometimes gives me pause, as I simply have no idea why the moguls have not discovered a way to milk our addiction to their benefit down to our last dollar!). This activity is usually done in the company of our fellow football addicts and friends, Tina and Rich, and the occasion is often an excuse in comfort food grazing – not unlike a living room tail-gating session – and I’m well aware that we are far from alone in this behavior.
However, I’m sure we differ in one distinct way – most who share our behavior simply stock their kitchens with whatever looks good at the local grocery that week – I know this because I know that a full quarter of my local Safeway on Friday night is jammed full of ready-made, takeout foods of every sort and variety – and I know they don’t do this simply to throw it all out on Monday morning! But we are not tempted – no my friends, no ready made commercial imitation comfort foods for us, thank you – we seize the opportunity to dip into our vast collection of comfort food recipes (easily half of my own collection) and select an old favorite or two, and usually an untried, but irresistible, new addition as well.
I have been saving a very special new addition just for such an occasion as today – It’s known as Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings, and has become famous as the arguably most popular offering at Portland’s local Thai favorite, Pok Pok. Before sharing the recipe, a word about about the restaurant and its chef/creator, Andy Ricter.
After many years of living in the culinary shadow of both Seattle and San Francisco, Portland is finally establishing its own identity as a feasting destination – and as such, not only are more and more customers being drawn in, but so are cutting edge and creative chefs. But Andy Ricter is no newbie arrival, having lived in Portland for the better part of the last 15 years, all the while honing his skills in some of Portland’s better kitchens, and building his culinary education by many trips to Southeast Asia – and during those trips, Ricter fell in love with Thai street food. Somewhere along the way, he began to get serious about bringing back that street food to Portland, and his Pok Pok is the evolution of that dream.
In 2005, after a few years of setting up his personal grill in the driveway of his southeast Portland home, and selling his own version of Thai grilled street food. Ricter moved his outdoor picnic tables into his living room, and Pok Pok became a reality – and the rest is history.
As you first search out Pok Pok, at the SE end of Portland’s Division Street, your first impulse is to check the address again – for this is one of the city’s old established residential neighborhoods, and doesn’t look like an ideal location for a hoping restaurant/bar (The Whiskey Soda Lounge occupies Ricter’s old basement). Don’t bother looking for a parking lot, street parking is the only option. As you near the location, you are taken by the attractive transformation of the older residence into a tightly quartered, but well designed collection of both indoor and outdoor serving areas – inviting and always filled with happy guests.
If you decide to visit Pok Pok, you should know a few things about Ricter’s approach to Thai food, and how he feels it should be served, at least in his places. He believes that much of what is available as Thai dishes in US restaurants is a poor representation of true Thai food (even when cooked and served by Thais), and the biggest reason for this is that most Thai restaurants are trying to adapt their dishes to American tastes. Ricter’s approach is to come as close to true Thai as possible -sometimes difficult due to the local non-availability of true Thai ingredients- and let the American taste do the adapting. Additionally, it’s Ricter’s belief that Thai street food is the best representation of true Thai, so that’s what Pok Pok’s menu is filled with, and why you still see so much outdoor grilling going on there.
Apparently, it’s a philosophy that strikes a chord with Portland’s Thai diners – you will always have to wait for a table.
OK, here’s the recipe, verbatim, courtesy of Ricter and Food and Wine Magazine – and for those among you who are observant, yes, it’s a Vietnamese preparation -howbeit street food- in a restaurant that calls itself Thai! Ricter explains that these wings are the adaptive creation of fellow kitchen staffer, Ike, who just happens to be Vietnamese – but they are also some of the best that Ricter has ever tasted, so how could they not be added to the menu? Just another indication of Ricter’s dedication to honesty!
Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings
(Adapted from Andy Ricker’s “Pok Pok” recipe for Food & Wine Magazine)
When frying anything in batches, it’s important to allow the heat of the oil to rebound to its original temperature for consistent and efficient cooking. While these wings taste great as is, the addition of crispy fried garlic at the end add another dimension of flavor. Simply fry another two cloves of minced garlic in a couple of tablespoons of oil until golden and drain on paper towels before adding during the final toss with the caramel.
1/2 cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
1/2 cup superfine sugar
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 pounds chicken wings, split at the joint (ends off, and saved for stock)
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup rice flour or corn starch
1-2 tablespoons chili garlic sauce (such as Huy Fong brand)
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro and/or mint for garnish
1. In a small bowl, add 2 cloves of the minced garlic and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Massage the salt into the garlic to begin to extract its oils. Dilute with 1/4 cup of water and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Strain the garlic mixture through cheesecloth into a clean bowl, squeezing to extract as much flavor as possible.
2. In another bowl, prepare the marinade by whisking together the liquid garlic extract, fish sauce and superfine sugar. Add the chicken and the marinade to a resealable zip-top bag and place in the refrigerator overnight. Make sure to toss the wings occasionally to evenly distribute the marinade.
3. Preheat the oven to 200°. In a large heavy bottomed pot and using a deep-fry thermometer, heat 2 inches of oil to 350°. Remove the wings from their marinade and pat dry on paper towels; reserve the marinade.
4. In a medium bowl, lightly dredge each wing in a coating of the rice flour, making sure to pat off
any excess. Fry the wings in batches until golden and cooked through, about 7-10 minutes. With frying subsequent batches, remove the wings to a baking sheet lined with a wire rack and place in the oven to stay warm.
5. Meanwhile, make the wing caramel by adding the reserved marinade to a medium skillet over medium-high heat. When mixture begin to bubble, add chili garlic sauce to the pan and continue to cook until reduced to a syrupy consistency. Add the fried wings to the caramel and toss to coat. Glaze the wings by adding a small splash of water to the pan to collect the caramelized bits. Remove to a platter and garnish with chopped cilantro and/or mint.
This recipe is a little tedious in my estimation, mostly due to the need for home deep frying – I actually avoid this type of frying if possible, because of the mess you always have, and frankly, the large amount of wasted oil. But for authenticity, I went ahead with it. However, I have seen adaptions online that grill or bake the wings instead – which I think may well be quite satisfactory because, let’s face it, it’s the sauce that’s the heart of this preparation. So, think about that before making these.
The second tedious part is making garlic juice to add to the sauce – I think the reason for this is that if you do as I did (I put my garlic through a garlic press and just added it to the sauce), your sauce will have tiny garlic bits in it, and the glaze will not be as smooth and shiny as otherwise – your pick – if you press your garlic, don’t forget to add another 1/4 cup of water to the sauce.
I added a Tbs of lime juice to the sauce, to create a balance for the salt/sweet nature of it, and I think it worked well – purely optional.
When you are thickening the sauce and adding the wings to the sauce, heed Ricter’s advice to add just a Tbs or two of water to the pan as the wings glaze, because the sauce is so quickly thickening that you may need to thin it just a bit to get the glaze onto all your wings – don’t worry, the thinned glaze will quickly re-thicken and again become shiny and sticky – really sticky!
Finger lickin’ good sticky!