To perfect the process for these crisp, garlicky, salty-sweet ribs, Alexander Ong, chef of Betelnut restaurant in San Francisco, consulted with the legendary Cecilia Chiang, whose restaurant Mandarin popularized authentic Chinese cooking in San Francisco in the 1960s. The Chinese red vinegar and mushroom soy sauce help give the ribs their black lacquer and rich flavor. If you substitute regular vinegar and soy sauce, they'll be lighter in color and flavor but still delicious. See "Secrets for Fantastic Ribs" below.
RIBS AND MARINADE
4 pounds pork spareribs trimmed St. Louis-style, membrane removed, cut in half across the bone*
3/4 cup mushroom soy sauce*, or regular soy sauce plus 1 1/2 tbsp. molasses
6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine* or dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
3 star anise pods
3/4 cup coarsely chopped unpeeled fresh ginger
SAUCE AND SERVING
6 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup Chinese red vinegar* or unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
Vegetable oil for deep-frying, plus 1/4 cup oil for cooking in wok
1 cup cornstarch
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves* or small regular basil leaves, plus a few basil sprigs
How to Make It
Prepare ribs: Cut apart between bones. Rinse and put in a 6- to 8-qt. pot. Add 2 1/2 qts. water, cover, and bring to a boil. Skim and discard any foam. Add mushroom soy sauce, rice wine, five-spice powder, star anise, and ginger. Return to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until meat is tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Strain rib mixture through a colander set over a large bowl. Set bowl of braising liquid in a larger bowl of ice water. Let ribs and seasonings cool in colander, then return to liquid and chill, covered, at least 4 and up to 12 hours.
Meanwhile, make sauce: In a small bowl, stir together sugar, reduced-sodium soy sauce, vinegar, and fish sauce until sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 250° and set a rimmed baking sheet in it. Pour 1 1/2 in. oil into a 5- to 6-qt. pot. Insert a deep-fry thermometer and heat oil over high heat to 350°. Meanwhile, skim and discard fat from bowl of ribs. Transfer ribs to a colander and discard seasonings. Working with one-quarter of ribs at a time, toss in a medium bowl with 1/4 cup cornstarch. Gently add ribs to oil. Cook until bones are browned and meat is crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer ribs to baking sheet in oven.
Heat a wok or 12-in. frying pan over medium heat. Add 1 tbsp. of remaining 1/4 cup oil. When it's hot, stir in one-quarter of garlic; cook about 15 seconds, then add one-quarter each of ribs and sauce. Cook, stirring with tongs (or a wide metal spatula, if using a frying pan), until sauce thickens and coats ribs well, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in one-quarter of basil leaves; cook and toss ribs until basil turns bright green, about 15 seconds. Transfer to a platter. Scrape out excess sauce from wok and spoon over ribs.
Cook remaining ribs the same way, adding a splash of water and reducing heat if pan starts to scorch.
*Ask a butcher to trim and cut the ribs for you. Find mushroom soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, Chinese red vinegar, and Thai basil at Asian markets.
Make ahead: Up to 1 day through step 3 (drain ribs after 12 hours).
Secrets for Fantastic Ribs:
USE PORK SPARERIBS AND BEEF SHORT RIBS. More generously marbled than pork baby back ribs, country-style spareribs, or regular beef ribs, they're noticeably more juicy and flavorful.
TRIM SPARERIBS ST. LOUIS-STYLE. Meaning, trim them into a tidy, rectangular shape that cooks evenly. Ask a butcher to trim them, or do it yourself: On the bony side, trim the flap of meat from the center, flush with the bones. Then cut the rack lengthwise between the 4- to 5-in.-wide rib section and the chewy skirt (above). Save scraps for soup.
REMOVE THE MEMBRANE. Pork spareribs have a membrane on the underside that can shrink up and make the meat cook unevenly. It's easy to remove: Slide the tip of a meat thermometer under the membrane at one end to loosen an edge. Pull off membrane with a paper towel (it may come off in pieces) while holding the rack down with your other hand.
Note: Nutritional analysis is per appetizer serving.