Caramel Chicken: A Slanted Door Sensation
One of my pastimes when I’m in the United States is to catch up on the restaurant industry news by reading the trades. It’s one of those double-edged swords to read the trades because you could be tempted to think that every chef is opening one booming restaurant after another. But I know better: Being a successful chef like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Chang or Wolfgang Puck, all of whom run highly successful franchises from one corner of the country to the other, is as rare as being an astronaut and probably comes with a lot more agita than working for NASA.
One item that caught my eye was that chef Charles Phan officially shelved his plans to open a much-anticipated Los Angeles outpost of his famed San Francisco eatery, Slanted Door. In 2015, Phan announced that he was excited about the developments taking place inside the City Market South in downtown L.A.’s Fashion District. But as time went on and other chains began opening installations at that venue, for reasons unknown, it seems that Phan’s high-end, modern Vietnamese cuisine and stellar wine list was not going to happen in L.A., after all.
It is unquestionable that L.A. has the hottest food scene in the country right now, drawing celebrity chefs from both coasts for arguably the best produce in the world and the longest growing seasons. According to industry insiders, the lower cost of living, cheaper labor and high quality of products mean better profit margins for L.A. restaurants over the far more costly options in New York and San Francisco.
Slanted Door’s accolades include “best Vietnamese restaurant in America” and “Mick Jagger’s favorite place to dine in San Francisco.” That’s quite a compliment for Phan, a graphics artist and architect turned chef and restaurateur. Having left one profession to become a chef and restaurateur, I’ve always admired Phan’s story and his cooking style, which is based on his love of his mother’s home cooking.
One of my favorite dishes and the most popular dish on the menu at Slanted Door is called Silky Caramel Chicken, and once you taste it, you want to keep eating it over and over again. Because Phan has decided to drop L.A. from his list of potential restaurant sites, I’d like to teach you how to make this dish at home, so you can have a small taste of the Slanted Door experience without having to trek to San Francisco.
You may not believe me until you make this, but I have never met a soul who didn’t love this dish.
You may not believe me until you make this, but I have never met a soul who didn’t love this dish — little kids and big kids alike, whiners, complainers, foodies, health nuts and everyone else. It’s not particularly healthful or “green,” and it has few vegetables in it. I always serve it over white rice, which is another unhealthful option, but I read somewhere that the combination of garlic and ginger is hugely beneficial.
I usually make this when I feel like something fast or have last-minute company. If you already have cooked rice, this will be your quickest way to a takeout-style stir fry in less time than it takes for takeout to be delivered. It takes only minutes of prep and another 12 minutes to cook. You could jazz it up or down, but I hope you will try the recipe as written before you add any fancy ingredients to it. Remember that I have love in my heart as I say this: Don’t mess around with perfection — just don’t — but that said, feel free to leave out the chiles or ginger when you are making this for kids.
Although there is an inordinate amount of sugar in this recipe, which I replace with honey, it’s balanced by the salty fish sauce as well as the vinegar. Go with brown rice instead of white if that makes you feel better about the fiber aspect of the dish but know that white rice is traditional here. Sometimes, I like to add roasted peanuts to my caramel chicken, leaving it with a Kung Pao type of vibe. However, it’s just as good, if not preferable, to have it without. You may want to double this recipe because it’s even better the next day.
Adapted from the Slanted Door restaurant
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely grated
6 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 cup rice vinegar
1/8 cup fish sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce or tamari
1 teaspoon sriracha hot sauce (optional)
1 pound (about 5) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup mild red or green chiles (or bell peppers), thinly sliced (optional)
1/4 cup chopped scallions, green parts only
1/4 cup roasted peanuts (optional)
2 cups cooked brown or white rice
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
Mix sauce ingredients and pour 1/4 cup of sauce on raw chicken to marinate for 10 minutes.
Place oil in wok or cast-iron skillet and heat until shimmering.
Place chicken in one layer in the pan and let cook, shaking or stirring until chicken begins to caramelize on all sides — about 6 minutes. Suddenly, the chicken will become a caramelized, divine-smelling, restaurant-quality pile of golden nuggets.
Add peppers and scallions and stir fry for another minute. Then add remaining sauce and cook for another 5 minutes or so until all the chicken is the color of shellac and sauce has thickened. Throw in roasted peanuts, if using, and serve over rice. Garnish with cilantro.
Note: Don’t be tempted to use chicken breast for this recipe. It dries out terribly when you try to caramelize it. Skinless, boneless thigh meat won’t dry out and is a great thing here. If you must, use a combination of thigh and breast meat.
Makes approximately 2 servings.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.