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