For Dallas restaurateur Kyla Young, it was always a given that his menus would feature stuffed chicken wings, a family recipe his mom had taught him to make years earlier.
She'd started him in the restaurant business, and Young checked in with her almost daily even after he and wife Angel launched Thai restaurant Sakhuu in Old East Dallas. It was only natural, then, that Young would tell his mother about his bid for a precious booth at this year's State Fair of Texas. "Pray for us," he told her.
Next month, through a quirk of fate, the Youngs will be among the 78 food vendors slinging their fare at this year's State Fair. For them, it will be a chance to not only showcase their signature item but to honor Young's mother, Teng, who died last month.
The couple can't help but think Teng had a hand in it. You might say they got there on a wing and a prayer.
The Youngs' task won't be easy: They and their staff aim to produce 60,000 stuffed wings by the fair's Sept. 25 opening. And as a late addition to the event, they've got two fewer months to prepare than other vendors, the majority of whom were confirmed in May.
Sakhuu, one of two first-time vendors at this year's fair, also has the task of turning its provided shell of a space into a small kitchen — a step that veteran vendors can skip. In all, it's a $100,000-plus investment, not to mention that the Youngs have a son, Kato, born in March.
"But once you get in," Kyla said, "it's your one chance to not fail."
He's split the staff's shifts so a graveyard crew can churn out hundreds and hundreds of wings nightly, which are then transferred to freezer storage. Personally, he's working around the clock, managing Sakhuu by day and the stuffing by night.
"I became a single mom overnight," his wife said.
Their own place
The unassuming couple opened Sakhuu in August 2012 on an unpolished stretch of Bryan Avenue near Fitzhugh in Old East Dallas. The name is a fusion of a Thai dessert dish and the surname of Angel's late father.
They met while working at another Thai restaurant several years earlier, and many customers followed them to their new location. Their manner makes patrons feel like they've been invited to someone's home — and, in a sense, they have been.
"It's more than just, 'I sell and you buy,'" said Kyla. "It's like, they come to your house and you cook for them. Because we're here all the time."
Regulars have been known to bus tables and take orders when the place gets too busy. Some text Kyla last-minute to see whether tables are available.
Though the wings appear on the menu as "Sakhuu Stuffed Wings," many call them simply "Mama's Chicken Wings." The labor-intensive recipe has evolved over time, with the stuffing a mix of chicken, rice, onion and spices.
Two years ago, Teng was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, but she powered on, continuing her four-mile walks and cooking for family members when able.
Last fall, while Angel was pregnant, Teng landed in the ICU, a 10-day hospital stretch that Kyla felt sure would preface her farewell. Aware that his mom was tired of hospital food and thinking her end was near, he asked what she wanted to eat.
She thought about it. Whole fried catfish, she said.
That evening, Kyla smuggled a feast into the hospital, including the requested dish.
"She made me eat her [hospital] food and drink her Ensure so her doctor wouldn't get mad at her," Kyla said. "But that's when I accepted that she wouldn't get to see the baby."
But Teng powered through again. Within two weeks, she was taking walks again and leaving her oxygen tank behind.
This was the second time the Youngs had applied for a State Fair booth. When they got word in May that their bid had been turned down again, their attention soon turned to Teng's fading health.
In late June, when one of the fair's vendors dropped from the lineup, concessions director Melanie Linnear called the Youngs to see whether they were still interested. They were awaiting confirmation when Teng took a turn for the worse. The Youngs planned a visit over the July 4 weekend.
As the family left for Irvine, Calif., the fair was the furthest thing from their minds. They got there in time for Teng to spend July 4 playing with her 4-month-old grandson.
She passed away July 5 at age 64.
Four days later, the family was heading out to scatter her ashes when Angel's phone rang. It was Linnear: The booth was theirs.
The day before, Angel had been with Kato when he looked up and started laughing, as though someone was playing with him.
"That kind of freaked me out," she said. "That's why when we got the call, it just felt like [Teng's] presence was there. She knew how much this meant to us. This is her product."
The Youngs are extra motivated to make the most of their chance.
"The way I see it, you don't get many opportunities," Kyla said. "We just needed this one ticket to get in the door. I'm putting everything I know into our effort."