One might argue America’s most beloved chickens wings are churned out of a former teriyaki stand in Southeast Portland.
Each week, thousands of pounds of these wings are brined, fried, and glazed to sticky-spicy-sweet perfection from the depths of chef Andy Ricker’s A-frame, all-about-wings shack. This is ground zero for the Pok Pok empire, arguably the most famous Thai restaurant in America, and much of its success could directly be attributed to these addictive Vietnamese-in-origin wings.
Those crispy, chewy umami bombs—lacquered in fried, caramelized garlic and nam prik pao, the spicy roasted chili paste—have been a staple since the moment they landed on its menu more than a decade ago. Their success, thanks in large part to Flavortown mayor-for-life Guy Fieri, started at a time when few Western home cooks had even heard of fish sauce and helped launch more than half a dozen restaurants across Portland and Brooklyn.
Ricker first encountered the wings at a bia hoi, or fresh beer stand, in Saigon while traveling in Vietnam 15 years ago. The tiny, side-street joint poured mild keg beer by the pitcher and offered a short English menu to diners relaxing on mini plastic stools. Ricker said doesn’t remember the other dishes, but the fish sauce wings stuck with him. They were one of the best things he’d eaten that entire trip through China and Southeast Asia.
He scribbled a note about them in a notebook and knew he had to make them when he got home.
Two years later, notes long lost, Ricker stood in the basement of what would later become Pok Pok, then just an erstwhile sushi shack, struggling to bring his memory of those fish sauce wings back to life. His version lacked the sweet, garlicky punch he remembered tasting at that stand in Vietnam. It wasn’t until he asked his then-first and only employee, Ich “Ike” Truong, whether he knew what Ricker was trying to recreate.
Truong, who had previously worked with Ricker at his house painting company, asked for two pounds of chicken wings and in 30 minutes had reanimated those intangible wings with more sugar and a crucial addition: garlic water. The recipe has since been tweaked in order to scale up to meet the demand of the thousands of pounds of wings Pok Pok sells. These days, the Portland restaurants go through more than three tons of fish-sauced wings each week during its summer months.
The secret to their addictiveness, Ricker modestly and correctly states, is that they’re perfect, whether on their own or chased with light beer.
“It’s salt, fat, sugar, protein, heat and lots of it,” Ricker told The Takeout. “It’s the kind of thing that human beings, at least Western human beings, seem to really crave. It’s kind of like a doughnut. You don’t nibble on a doughnut, you crush it. It’s delicious, it’s salty and sweet and fatty and doughy and damn. These wings are to beer what doughnuts are to coffee.”
The word “addictive” has become tragically overused in describing food, but there really isn’t a better descriptor for these wings. They’re sticky and ultra-crisp, thanks to a light dredge of rice and tempura flours and shellacked in what’s basically a fish sauce caramel. That caramel—it’s sweet and funky, but never fishy in a way that scares off most fish sauce neophytes.
A decade ago, fish sauce—the amber pillar of Southeast Asian cooking, fermented from salt-coated fish—was a condiment rarely found outside Asian or specialty grocery stores. Today, it’s practically America’s sweetheart, the secret ingredient guaranteed to ramp up tomato sauces, bloody Mary’s, or any sauce in need of a savory boost. And it’s now available at your neighborhood grocery store.
There’s no proof Pok Pok’s wings helped establish fish sauce’s place in today’s culinary vernacular, but they certainly didn’t hurt either. Ricker was arguably among the first non-Asian chefs in America to popularize the condiment, shining a light on its potential and pulling back the curtain on the formerly elusive world of Southeast Asian cuisine. And while it has been used in Asian countries for centuries, it took Ricker—and credit where due—Guy Fieri to catapult fish sauce, and those wings, into the mainstream.
“At that time, the rise of food entertainment hadn’t happened yet so there were a lot less people who were aware of foods from different cultures than there are now,” he said. “Tourists would show up and the demographic for Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives was not hipster. That guy gets a lot of heat for looking like a douchebag, but I’ll tell you what, we went from selling 30-40 orders a day to selling 140 pretty much overnight, and it’s gone up from there.”
While Portlanders live in a bubble where Indian, Thai and Israeli foods are standard fare, Ricker said that to a lot of the country, it’s still exotic. And when Pok Pok wings were first becoming popular, fish sauce was likely not something many Western cooks had in their cabinets.
“A lot of people had not even had fish sauce and didn’t know what it was, and that was an advantage,” Ricker said. “If they knew, it might’ve freaked them out.”
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