Q: I had some wonderfully sweet, savory and slightly crunchy chicken wings at a restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, called Phnom Penh. Any chance you could get me their recipe, or find a restaurant in Chicago that offers something similar?
—Mary Hutchings Reed, Chicago
A: Well, Mary, you certainly know where to eat when you travel. Phnom Penh is a highly regarded Southeast Asian restaurant in Vancouver. And you are not alone in appreciating the wings. Here's what Gary Ng, co-founder of the website Eating in Vancouver & the World (www.eatinginvancouver.ca), had to say in an email.
"The wings at Phnom Penh are special because they are consistent and delicious every single time,'' he wrote. "They are deep fried fresh to order in a light, crispy batter, seasoned with what many have suspected to be salt, pepper, sugar and MSG. But the flavours don't end there. The wings are liberally topped with sauteed bits of garlic and green onion and have a side dipping sauce, which consists of lemon and white and black pepper. The combination of piping hot flavourful wings dipped into the sauce brings satisfying bites time after time, which is why every single table usually orders their famous wings, one of their 'flagship' dishes."
Ng adds that the wings are one reason why customers queue up to eat at Phnom Penh every day.
"Fans of the restaurant usually have cravings for their wings and some have even gone so far to jokingly suggest there's some sort of addictive ingredient inside," he adds. "To our knowledge, there have been imitators in town which make similar wings but they just don't compare and can't be compared."
Phnom Penh has not divulged its recipe, which is apparently a family secret according to Stephanie Yuen, author of "East Meets West: Traditional and Contemporary Asian Dishes from Acclaimed Vancouver Restaurants," in an e-mail. I tried telephoning the restaurant directly. First, it was closed for vacation, then the owner wasn't there.
Yuen says the secret to Phomn Penh's phenomenal wings is double fry. She sent me a copy of a recipe she developed based on the wings served at the first Vietnamese restaurant to open in Richmond, British Columbia, in the late 1980's. The crispy wings there were an "overnight sensation," she recalls.
As for finding an equivalent restaurant to Phnom Penh here in Chicago, I asked my Tribune colleague, Kevin Pang, for a suggestion. He recommended a Korean restaurant in the Edgewater neighborhood called Dak (1104 W. Granville Ave.; 773-754-0255).
Korean wings are different, he notes, but Dak's "satisfies the sweet and crispy and savory wing requirements."
Pang also pointed me to http://www.foodandwine.com, the Web site for Food & Wine magazine, which has a recipe for Vietnamese-style wings from Pok Pok in Portland, Ore. The recipe follows; give it a go at home.
Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings
Makes: 6 servings.
A foodandwine.com recipe from Andy Ricker, chef-owner of Pok Pok in Portland, Ore.
1/2 cup each: Asian fish sauce; superfine sugar
4 garlic cloves, 2 crushed and 2 minced
3 pounds chicken wings, split at the drumettes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying
1 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon each: chopped cilantro; chopped mint
1. Whisk the fish sauce, sugar and crushed garlic in a bowl. Add the wings and toss to coat. Refrigerate for 3 hours, tossing the wings occasionally.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a small skillet. Add the minced garlic; cook over moderate heat until golden, 3 minutes. Drain garlic on paper towels
3. Pour 2 inches of oil into a large pot; heat oil to 350 degrees. Pat the wings dry on paper towels; reserve the marinade. Put the cornstarch in a shallow bowl, add the wings and turn to coat. Fry the wings in batches until golden and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels and transfer to a bowl.
4. Simmer the marinade in a small saucepan over moderately high heat until syrupy, 5 minutes. Strain over the wings and toss. Top with the cilantro, mint and fried garlic and serve.
Double-fried Crispy Wings
Makes: 4 to 6 servings.
A recipe from Stephanie Yuen, author of "East Meets West: Traditional and Contemporary Asian Dishes from Acclaimed Vancouver Restaurants."
2 tablespoons each: five-spice powder; ground galangal
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 tablespoons sriracha (optional)
3 pounds chicken wings, rinsed and dried
1 cup flour, shifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons oil
1 cup cold water
6 cups oil (For deep-frying)
2 egg yolks
1 cup ice water
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chili flakes
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1. Mix five-spice powder, ground galangal, 1 teaspoon salt and optional sriracha in a large bowl. Rub mixture evenly onto the wings. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hour or overnight if preferred.
2. About 30 minutes before serving time, remove wings from refrigerator. Ten minutes before serving time, combine 1/2 cup flour, baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 cup water and 2 teaspoons oil in a medium mixing bowl to make batter, blend with a hand-held egg beater for 5 minutes.
3. Bring oil to 375 degrees in a wok or a deep-fryer on high heat. Separate wings and batter into 3 batches each. Combine first batch of wings and batter together. Deep fry for about 5 to 7 minutes or until wings turn golden brown. Transfer to a wired rack to drain and cool off. Repeat with other 2 batches. When the last batch is done, allow the wings to cool off on the rack for another 20 minutes.
4. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks and ice water together, stir in remaining flour, whisk for about 2 minutes. Separate wings and batter into 3 batches again and repeat deep-frying steps but cooking the wings in each batch for only about 1 minute to get that extra crunch.
5. Place 1 teaspoon oil from the deep-fryer in a small pan and heat on high, add chopped garlic and chili flakes. Turn heat to medium. Stir and cook until oil is dried up and garlic turns golden brown. Sprinkle on wings. Sprinkle with salt and ground black pepper to taste and serve hot.
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