THE FIRST TIME Thai Ha set up his food stand Mangosteen 206 at a farmers market, he was so excited, he didn’t think about what would happen when the market ended. Ha’s specialty is incredibly crisp chicken wings; he showed up to the market with his deep fryers and a little table, but not with a plan for all that hot oil.
“We had to sacrifice a cooler,” he says with a laugh during a recent phone call.
By the next week, he had figured out a way to transport hot oil, and in the seven years since, Ha has grown Mangosteen 206 from a farmers market stand selling 200 orders of wings a day to frying 500 to 600 orders in just a few hours at music festivals at the Gorge Amphitheatre.
Once the pandemic hit, the festival scene was put on indefinite pause. Ha got together with his friend Yenvy Pham, who, along with her siblings and parents, owns and operates Pho Bac and Pho Bac Sup Shop. With the iconic boat-shaped Pho Bac closed, Pham had a proposal for Ha: Set up shop in the kitchen, and serve wings, fried chicken sandwiches, smoked brisket and fresh boba tea out of the back.
“The concept works,” Ha says, noting they’ve been steadily getting busier as the months have gone on.
He’s not counting wings anymore. Instead, he says, “We’re just trying to keep up.”
In the beginning, however, it was just Ha in his kitchen, trying to figure out how to make a chicken wing that stayed crispy even after a car ride home. It took him nearly three years to perfect his recipe, using techniques he learned from working in restaurants and from watching his mom, a first-generation Vietnamese American, cook.
“Double-deep-fry method, using a cast iron, changing up the oil and the flour. I was a mad scientist. One day, it just worked,” he says.
He was making up to five test batches at a time, tweaking elements and leaving them for an hour after frying to see how the crispiness held up. He tasted so many chicken wings that after he perfected the recipe, he didn’t eat wings for an entire year.
His finished product is a blend of five different flours to hold rigidity and crunch, and that double deep fry.
“The first fry is to get the chicken completely cooked. The second fry is where it seals in the juices,” he says.
Ha not only cracked the code to an incredibly crisp, juicy wing; the wings at Mangosteen 206 stay crunchy even after a toss in your choice of sauce — normally, a surefire way to turn a crisp wing soggy.
“It’s all about finding that right balance to get that perfect chicken,” he says.
Ha’s sauces range from lemon pepper with butter and a honey-garlic teriyaki to a Korean-inspired one with spicy/sweet gochujang, honey, soy sauce and garlic. His signature sauce is called the Mangosteen, with fish sauce, lime, garlic and Thai chili.
He named his business Mangosteen 206 as a conversation-starter, in hopes of getting to know his customers.
“Nobody knew what the mangosteen fruit was. It’s called the queen of all fruits because the tree takes 60 years to grow before it actually fruits anything. That’s why it’s so expensive — from $15 to $25 a pound — but it’s some of the best fruit you would ever have,” he says.
It worked. Customers at the South Lake Union and Fremont markets were chatting up Ha about everything from mangosteens to wings.
“I became friends with our regulars; they would be the first in line on Sunday, telling me they had been dreaming about our wings,” he says.
The steady support has allowed Ha to go from two people running Mangosteen 206 to 20. Although things are going well in the setup at Pho Bac, he’s currently on the lookout for a full-fledged restaurant space.
In the meantime, head to the red boat on South Jackson Street Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. for Ha’s crispy wings, fried chicken sandwiches or even a 12-hour smoked brisket sandwich.