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Originally published October 3, 2013 at 12:17 PM | Page modified October 3, 2013 at 6:21 PM

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Vietnamese chicken wings: the bar snack of the moment

Thanks in large part to Portland restaurant Pok Pok, the Vietnamese chicken wing is having a moment. While some Seattle restaurants have quietly been serving them for years, others are just getting on the bandwagon.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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We’re always on wing patrol, my beer buddies and I.

So, it was a great joy to see couples and business guys in suits the other day at Wild Ginger, picking apart the fat wings and licking their fingers. And the dudes in Seahawks caps at Ba Bar later that night, with smears of brown sauce on their lips while washing down wings with IPAs. They all looked pretty content.

If you’ve been to either haunt, you know these aren’t Buffalo wings. They’re more like umami bombs, the dark meat fragrant with garlic, the crispy skin caramelized in sugar or fish sauce or both, with a sprinkling of more garlic and hot peppers. To many, they’re known as Pok Pok wings, named for the Portland Thai restaurant that popularized the dish.

The Pok Pok wings were anointed Food and Wine Magazine’s top 10 restaurant dishes in 2007 and featured on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

The restaurant’s Portland location sells about 4,000 pounds of wings a week. And with the opening of Pok Pok in Brooklyn last year, the wings now have a cult following on the East Coast, spawning numerous copycats, much like David Chang’s Pork Belly buns did eight years ago.

“Chicken wings are something we can all identify with,” said Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker. “They’re really flavorful. And you have the fish sauce and sugar. It’s got what we like — sweet, salty and rich, meaty and umami. And you can’t deny the fact that they have been exposed to a lot of people on the Food Network and word-of-mouth just took over.”

The funny thing is, the trendy snack is actually a Vietnamese classic. Ricker discovered the wings during a culinary inspiration trip through Southeast Asia eight years ago — at a street stall in Vietnam.

But he had trouble duplicating them back in the states. Then, one of his cooks, a Vietnamese refugee, showed him a few secrets. One was putting finely chopped garlic in water and using that liquid “to get the garlic flavor into the chicken,” he said. (On the menu, they’re called “Ike’s Chicken Wings,” named for that Vietnamese cook.)

They’re then battered and deep-fried and finished with sugar and fish sauce in the wok. The result is a silky, garlicky meat with a crispy skin that’s sticky with a coat of umami. (For the full recipe, see The Seattle Times’ All You Can Eat blog.)

Here’s the thing: Restaurants in Seattle, especially along the Rainier Valley corridor, have been serving Vietnamese wings like these for at least a decade. The difference now is Western customers are discovering them.

When it comes to these wings, the first thing any Vietnamese chef will tell you is to eat your veggies — the side of herbs, green leaf lettuce, cucumbers, pickled daikon and carrots that come with the wings.

You need that acidity and the vegetables to balance that intense sweet-and-salty flavor, said Eric Banh, owner of Ba Bar. (At Pok Pok, 80 percent of the wing orders come back with the herbs and pickled veggies untouched. It’s too bad because you need that to complement the wings, Ricker explained.)

The best in town, Ba Bar and Wild Ginger, like Pok Pok, use Draper Valley chicken instead of frozen fowl, marinating the wings overnight in garlic.

The wings served at Ba Bar are typical of what you would find at the better restaurants in Vietnam — dark caramel, glossy wings that are salty with fish sauce and tempered by caramelized sugar. The wings are just a vessel to deliver that umami burst, said Banh. And that burned sugar glaze “is the same reason why people love cinnamon rolls and cronuts,” he added.

Wild Ginger, with locations in downtown Seattle and Bellevue, makes the most radical interpretation of this comfort food. The pan-Asian restaurant omits the fish sauce to avoid the funky flavor that some Western palates may find off-putting.

You get the full appendage here — drumstick, end joint and all, the crispy skin gets glossed in a vinegar-sugar-chili glaze, a mild variation.

Wild Ginger owner Rick Yoder added the wings to his menu last year after taking his cooking staff to dine around Portland. When his staff ate at Pok Pok, his cook, who once lived in Vietnam, recognized those wings immediately. Wild Ginger tweaks his cook’s family recipe.

The Triple Door, which is also owned by Yoder, serves those wings during happy hour, though it’s not executed as consistently or as well as at its more polished sibling, Wild Ginger.

Here are a few other takes on the wings:

Long Restaurant near Pike Place Market, a sister restaurant of the popular Tamarind Tree, serves a variation that’s closer to what many Vietnamese peasants eat in the homeland. It’s intensely salty and pungent.

La Lot, near downtown, makes the most garlicky variation.

Thao Thanh restaurant in Rainier Valley has put wings on the menu for the past 23 years, one of the first restaurants to feature them in Seattle. Theirs is a dry version, without the sticky glaze.

(Note there’s often two wing variations offered on Vietnamese menus: battered, butter wings and the “ga chien nuoc mam,” which are the fish-sauce wings.)

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @tanvinhseattle

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