Ike's Wings at Pok Pok
3226 SE Division St., 232-1387, pokpokpdx.com.
Andy Ricker began Pok Pok as a little chicken shack on an unauspicious plot of land on Southeast Division. It went from service-industry secret to nationwide phenomenon in just a few years.
That charcoal-grilled chicken, learned in Thailand, may have inspired Ricker to start the restaurant. But the wings that turned Pok Pok into an icon came not from Thailand but from a dish Ricker had in Hanoi in 2004, with a helping hand from Ricker's very first employee, Ich "Ike" Truong. Ricker's wings were coming out too salty, so he asked Ike if he knew how to make Vietnamese fish sauce wings.
John Kennedy was Ricker's lead line cook from 2006 to 2008, as the wings were introduced—at the time, he says, he held the house record for making the most wings in a night, at more than 800.
As told by Ricker and Kennedy…
RICKER: Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings came from a dish I had in Hanoi back in 2004 or so on a backpacking trip at a bia hoi stand, called ga chien nuoc mam (fish sauce wings). You can find a version of them at a lot of Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S.A. When the main restaurant opened, they were one of the first things I wanted to be on the menu. I was fucking around with the recipe, and they were not coming out right: too salty. So I asked Ike, Ich Truong, who was my first employee…if he knew how to make them. He said "yeah, man" and asked me to give him 2 pounds of wings. The piece of the puzzle I was missing was the addition of garlic water to the marinade recipe and a bit more sugar than I was using, and suddenly the flavor came out correct. He also told me to glaze them with the same stuff we marinate them in and to add some chili paste to the glaze if I wanted them spicier. That was the extent of Ike's involvement with the development of the recipe—just that one hour, one afternoon, but it was invaluable, and it is the reason we named them after him.
KENNEDY: There was a good four to five months that Pok Pok was dead. When we experienced the media boom, everybody was behind the eight ball. We went from doing 50 covers a night to doing 300 covers a night. Wings will also steam themselves on the plate, so they're not going to be crispy. This was before we had runners and servers with ear monitors. We just had two walkie-talkies.
RICKER: We had the recipe down, we were just having issues with execution on the line. [Kennedy] provided a key to the process, which was to squirt a small amount of water into the pan at the end. This happened fairly soon after we started developing the recipe.
KENNEDY: What makes the wings work is the double frying. It goes straight from the fryer to wok with fish sauce, palm sugar, fried garlic—and if it's spicy wings, bird pepper chili paste. A few tosses in the wok and you're basically candying it. The Chinese have been doing it for eons…. After Ike's fish sauce wings gained in popularity, people started to wonder: These wings are by far the most popular item. What's Ike getting out of all this? One day he did show up driving a gold Lexus.
RICKER: Ike has always been credited for his contribution to the recipe, which was the process of adding water to the garlic and squeezing the juice out instead of using whole garlic, and a couple other minor adjustments. He supplied the key ingredient to getting the recipe on the right track, and he has been compensated for that and will continue to be compensated. He does drive a Lexus from Pok Pok and other jobs he's held, but I don't think it's gold.
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