Pok Pok chef/owner Andy Ricker says the recipe for his beloved Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings came from reverse engineering and collaboration. He didn't "create" them, he explains, but rather "like almost everything at Pok Pok they came from somewhere else." In this case, the wings came from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where Ricker visited during a four month trip to Southeast Asia.
On the trip, Ricker took notes about various dishes in a notebook which he unfortunately lost. Left only with his memory of the wings (which he says were "so simple and delicious [he] couldn't forget them"), Ricker experimented with making them on his own, knowing the ingredients but finding his final product still falling short of what he remembered. He turned to his neighbor and first employee Ich Truong. Truong, a Vietnamese immigrant, helped refine the recipe, adjusted the ratios of ingredients in the marinade, and taught Ricker a few key tricks "that made all the difference." The wings, now named for Truong, have remained a staple of the Pok Pok menu in both Portland and Brooklyn.
The wings, Ricker says, are "essentially just umami bombs" with fish sauce being particularly high in free glutamates that create umami at the molecular level. What makes the wings stand out, though, is that despite inducing an "umami overload," the flavors are built and layered so that the chicken comes through. The wings also "hit all the sensory things important to Westerners" in being crispy, sweet, salty, meaty, moist, and savory. Ricker is certainly onto something. He estimates that in the busy Summer season this year, his restaurants in Portland will go through some 4,000 pounds of wings per week, with virtually every table at lunch and dinner ordering a plate.
Eater PDX editor Erin DeJesus offers insight into the insanely popular dish, which has helped land Pok Pok on the Eater PDX 38:
It's easy to see how the wings became one of Pok Pok's iconic dishes. It's a dish familiar to most diners — chicken wings — but Pok Pok fries them to a pitch-perfect texture (crispy and caramelized) and blasts them with an unexpected combination of sweet, salt (fish sauce), and spice (garlic chief among them) ? People overuse the term "addictive" when talking about food, myself included, but it's legitimately the best descriptor here. A meal at Pok Pok is always memorable, but it's the wings that elicit cravings long after the fact.
Below, the elements of the Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings at Pok Pok:
1. The Chicken
In both Portland and NYC, Ricker uses whole bone-in, skin-on chicken wings. In NYC, he uses Amish wings from Pennsylvania and in Portland he uses Draper Valley wings from Oregon, both of which are all-natural and fresh. Ricker likes that the meat on these wings tends to be a little bit darker and that the wings are consistently sized. Ricker keeps the skin on and the bone in to keep the wings moist through the cooking process. The meat itself adds another layer of umami flavor.
2. The Marinade
Before any frying happens, the wings marinate for a few hours in a mix of fish sauce, sugar, and garlic water. Ricker relies on Phu Quoc fish sauce, a Vietnamese brand, because it is "light, aromatic," and "some of the finest." He also likes the fragrance of Phu Quoc, and points out that its lightness is in contrast to heavier Thai fish sauce, which wouldn't have been the right fit. The fish sauce acts like a brine, helping the chicken retain moisture. Adding garlic water as opposed to straight garlic was a critical tip Ricker learned from Truong. Ricker originally added garlic to the marinade, but then tasted burnt garlic in the finished product. On Truong's advice, he now soaks the garlic in water for 10-15 minutes and then uses the water squeezed from that garlic. This water imparts that same garlicky flavor to the wings, but it doesn't burn during frying. Though he used to use palm sugar, Ricker now uses standard sugar to sweeten the marinade.
3. The Crust
To create a satisfyingly crispy crust, Ricker coats the wings in a mixture of rice flour and tempura flour. Ricker explains that rice flour is often used for deep frying in Southeast Asia as part of a mixture. Tempura flour is also a common deep frying flour in Southeast Asia, and Ricker uses a Thai flour brand called Gogi. Achieving a crust that's perfectly crispy (but doesn't fall off) isn't just a matter of proper flour. As Ricker puts it, the crust is all about "frying your chicken for the right amount of time at the right temperature, and then tossing it in the glaze for the right amount time." To that end, Ricker fries the wings in rice bran oil, which has a high enough smoke point to allow the wings to get crispy as they cook without burning the sugars in the wings. Rice bran oil also has a light flavor and is a relatively healthy frying method.
4. The Glaze
The wings go straight from the fryer into a pan with a fish sauce glaze. The glaze includes fish sauce, garlic water, sugar (the ingredients from the marinade), plus crispy fried garlic, and ground roasted chilis if the wings are ordered spicy. The sugar in the marinade caramelizes in the pan, which makes the glaze a bit sticky. Glazing the wings is a way of "doubling down" on umami, giving the wings a final flavor blast before they hit the plate.
5. The Vegetables
Ricker serves the wings with a Vietnamese table salad, which he says is a simple way to describe a platter of vegetables and herbs that is typically served with meals in Vietnam. Ricker serves raw green leaf lettuce, cucumbers, and a sprig of rau ram (a Vietnamese cilantro-like herb), along with carrots and daikon radishes simply pickled in vinegar, sugar, and salt (the combination of pickled carrots and daikon is called cu cai). Western customers, Ricker laments, often don't know how to incorporate the vegetables into the dish, either attempting to make wraps or ignoring the vegetables altogether. Ricker explains that eating the vegetables balances the "over the top salt-sugar-protein" flavors of the wings by cooling your mouth down. Ricker says it's too bad that more customers don't partake, and estimates that 80% of finished plates come back with the vegetables untouched.