I’ve never been much of a groupie. I’ve never written a fan letter. I’ve never followed a band. Even in 1984, at the excitable age of 13—the height of my lust for John Taylor—I attended the Duran Duran concert surrounded by screaming, fainting girls with my longings respectfully in check.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t ever publicly exhibited juvenile signs of want or weakness. They’ve just been inspired by food—perhaps most notably Nick Balla’s chicken wings, for which I’ve found myself consumed by the same carnal cravings I assume Marianne had for Mick. One evening, long ago, my brain infused with oxytocin and my senses clouded by post wing bliss, I spontaneously posted on Facebook: “Nick, you can be my personal chef anytime!” Joe looked at me with absolute reproach and said: “Sara, don’t be creepy.”

I was only trying to give Nick a compliment. Before he landed as the chef at Bar Tartine, he cooked at his restaurant Nombe, a Japanese-ish diner in the Mission which Joe and I frequented. For that funky, but cool, little joint, Nick was all about Asian flavors and created a wing dish that I’d describe as a cracky, crispy, limey, spicy, herby, saucy chicken paradise.

To achieve this, the wings are first tenderized in a long, luxurious bath of buttermilk, then tossed with a mix of cornstarch, flour, and toasted, ground rice, then deep-fried until they reach crunchy, golden perfection. But then—then the wings are tossed with a generous amount of a piquant and perfect amalgamation of four of the five elements of taste: honey (sweet), salt (salt), lime juice (sour), fish sauce (umami). I can’t say there’s anything particularly bitter in this dish, barring maybe the cilantro, but there’s definitely heat (fresh chilies/togarashi), which I’d like to formally nominate as the sixth element.

When Nick started at Bar Tartine, he retired the wings and thus my ability to eat them and embarrass Joe with my overt enthusiasm. Luckily, Chino afforded us the perfect excuse to get them back in rotation. One of the very first things we did when Joe and I were putting together the menu was to call up Nick, who’s a really nice guy (and this is not a come-on), and ask if he’d allow us to put his wings on our menu. Despite the fact that they’re not particularly Japanese, Joe christened them Nick Balla’s Japan-o-Mission wings as a tribute to the now closed Nombe.

Clearly, Chino and the wings were meant to be. This month Food & Wine is featuring a glossy, full-page photo of them courtesy of Eva Kolenko. They even have Latin roots. “They came about with Southeast Asian and Mexican flavors in mind,” Nick told me the other day when he stopped in to meet our new chef Blake Askew and make sure we were still making the wings to his liking. Dipping his finger into our rice flour mix, Nick revealed that the key to the wings is to toast the rice until light brown before grinding it (and do not take the short cut of buying pre-ground rice flour). You also don’t want to grind the rice to a complete powder—it should have some texture. The little nubs of fried rice bits are what keeps the chicken crisp for hours.

The toasted, ground rice at Chino.

The toasted, ground rice at Chino.

Nick told me that he likes it when the wings actually soak up the sauce for a while, which I suppose makes them a good to-go item. Personally, I could just add a little whiskey and drink that sauce straight, which, come to think of it, is not a bad idea in this era of savory cocktails.

We’ve gotten a ton of requests for the wings recipe, so here it is. Warning: Don’t make the wings and then overzealously post anything about Nick that could appear mistaken as lascivious. He’s now got a very serious co-chef and girlfriend with access to knives.

NICK BALLA’S JAPAN-O-MISSION WINGS
To make the rice flour, toast whole grains of sushi rice in a heavy, dry pan, stirring, until the rice is golden brown. Remove and cool. In a clean spice grinder or Vitamix, grind until almost powdery but still with some bits of texture.

Makes about 30 wings

2 1/2 pounds chicken wings
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup toasted rice flour (see above)
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons kosher salt

3/4 cup honey
1 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 cup chopped scallions, white and light green parts
1/4 cup thinly sliced serrano chile
1 1/2 teaspoons ichimi togarashi
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/4 cup torn mint

2 quarts vegetable or peanut oil for frying

In a plastic container, mix the chicken wings and buttermilk and cover. Let marinate for at least 12 hours. Using a strainer, drain the chicken wings for 10 minutes.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Mix the rice flour, cornstarch, flour, and salt in a bowl. Then toss the chicken wings in this flour mixture until well coated. Place the wings on sheet pans lined with parchment paper and bake for 15 minutes. The wings do not have to be cooked all the way through but the coating should be dry.

Meanwhile, in a bowl whisk together the honey, lime juice, fish sauce, scallions, serrano chile, togarashi, garlic, and kosher salt. Taste and adjust as necessary to achieve a balance of sweet, sour, and salty.

In a deep pot or fryer, heat the oil until it reaches 350 degrees on a thermometer. Add the wings in batches so as not to crowd and fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes per batch. Repeat.

Douse the wings with a generous amount of sauce and shower with cilantro and mint. Serve.

______________________________________________________
If you’d like to be added to my mailing list, email me at sara@tacolicious.com