When my husband and I worked as line cooks in LA, we lived in a constant state of broke and tired. Sometimes, though, it’s fun to live outside your means. When we wanted to indulge, we’d head over to his all-time-favorite restaurant, Red Medicine, which was located just down the street from where we both worked. As one of the few places around serving food after midnight, we could sneak it into our schedules with a late-night, post-shift snack. Our snack of choice: the Vietnamese chicken meatballs. They came four bites to an order, with a side of scowl from the waiter for not getting anything else, but hey, at least we got to feel like we were living it up.
Red Medicine is closed now (but don’t worry, the chef has moved on to bigger and better things), but the meatballs live on in our home. In my version, ground chicken gets seriously gussied up with funky fish sauce and fresh aromatics before being tossed in turbinado sugar for a crackly, caramelized crust. With so much flavor and spice, these meatballs are perfect for serving in a lettuce wrap loaded with quick pickles, which offer cooling relief along with a punch of brightness and acidity. It’s so quick, easy, and cheap to throw together that it’s still one of our go-to meals or midnight snacks. And the best part is that by making it at home we get more than two bites each, minus all that shade.
I start by finely mincing Thai green chilies, scallions, ginger, lemongrass, and garlic. Rather than trying to locate the food processor, I find it easiest to mince it all with a chef’s knife. But if you’re pro food pro, here’s the perfect time to use it because a uniform brunoise isn’t needed. Once minced, I give the aromatics a quick sweat in coconut oil just to remove some of their water content and liven up their flavor. Traditionally, Vietnamese meatballs contain pork fat, which can be used here as well if you’ve got some on hand. Thanks to Stella, my pantry is always stocked with coconut oil, so it’s my go-to when I need a saturated fat. If you mix the raw aromatics into the meatballs without this brief cooking step, they’ll add too much moisture, resulting in a mushy final texture. Also, the flavors in ginger, lemongrass, and garlic need some direct heat to fully develop, which they won’t get if they're folded raw into the meat.
I combine the cooked aromatics with ground chicken, fresh mint, fish sauce, and salt. I make sure to include every bit of the now flavorful oil the aromatics were sautéed in as well. The additional fat coupled with vigorous mixing will give the meatballs a sausage-like bounce once cooked. I prefer to mix the ground chicken by hand, but you could also do this mixing step in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, or even that food processor you’ve already hauled out. You’ll know the chicken is mixed enough when the mixture becomes sticky and cohesive.
After mixing the chicken, I pan fry the meatballs in two stages—first at medium heat to cook the chicken through, and second at high heat to caramelize and crisp the outside. I start by adding enough oil to a large sauté pan to cover the bottom with a half inch of fat. Once the oil is preheated, I use two large spoons to form the chicken mixture into rough football shapes before dropping them right into the pan. Because the chicken mixture is very sticky, I don't recommend using your hands to form the meatballs; dipping the spoons in the hot oil before forming each one prevents sticking, allowing them to easily slide off the spoon and into the oil. The football shape cooks through fast, fits perfectly in a lettuce cup, and offers an ideal ratio of crunchy exterior to tender center.
Once all the chicken mixture is formed and cooked, I remove the meatballs to a large platter or bowl and then toss them with turbinado sugar and crank up the heat on the residual oil. Turbinado sugar creates an extra crispy shell and adds a subtle smoky flavor from the molasses it contains. I add the sugar-coated meatballs back to the pan to quickly caramelize the exterior for a dark brown and sticky glaze.
I like to serve the meatballs with whatever pickles and condiments I’ve got on hand along with plenty of supple bibb lettuce to wrap them up. If my pantry is looking bare, I’ll even quick pickle some fruits or vegetables to tuck inside. For extra crunch, crispy shallots, peanuts, or pork rinds are always welcome. It’s the ideal meal for a busy weeknight when you still want to squeeze in some good times.