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Lord of the Wings

We review three wing joints in advance of Super Bowl Sunday.

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We're fast approaching that Sunday when the flavored chicken wing, often reserved for late-night dorm runs and middle-age shame eating, emerges from the shadows and struts around like an arrogant rooster. The National Chicken Council glibly trumpeted that more than 1.25 billion wings would be consumed this Super Bowl weekend. "This is our time," say the collective wing joints of America.

I found three spots, far afield from the East Bay's culinary epicenters, where wings are their primary raison d'être. Sure, you can grab wings at a zillion general practitioner pubs and delis, but I wanted specialists only. Call it public service journalism for the wing-minded set.

To be clear, wings in this context are un-breaded flats and drumettes, thrown in the deep fryer for a spell, then tossed with a sauce or a dry seasoning blend. I sampled four varieties at each spot: traditional hot, something sweet, a dry wing, and a wild card. These are the results.

Red Buffalo

Red Buffalo's maroon standalone building is festively bedecked with cartoon pictures of steaming wings, chili peppers, and suggestive puffy adjectives: Plump, Hot, Juicy. Old-timey signs (Cracker Jack, Pennzoil, etc.) clutter the tiny interior. It's like you stumbled into a family wing joint in the Midwest. Well, except for the bulletproof glass.

How this brilliant wing shack ended up in West Oakland's Ghost Town district, on a deserted block across from a weed-grown tire shop, completely eludes me. And because I was not able to track down the owner/chef for an interview, the wings had to supply all the answers.

Big signs tell you everything is made from scratch, so "Give It Time." This translates to nearly a half hour per order — you'd do well to call ahead. I'm not sure what takes so long, but the resulting wings were moist, tender, and full of meaty flavor, not to mention large for a standard broiler hen.

The sizzling hot wing, made with a combo of old-school Trappey's fire sauce and fresh jalapeños, bowled me over with its intensity. The deeply smoky chipotle wing was also a scorcher, with just a bit less vinegar in the sauce. Both hot wings had little pepper pieces embedded in the skin, a nod to thoughtful, handmade preparation. Also pepper-specked was the sweet chili glaze, a mildly cloying Thai-accented wing. The dry Jamaican wing was a savory treat, dusted in allspice, garlic powder, and a few other jerk flavors.

In honor of Hostess Bakery's recent bankruptcy declaration, I ordered one non-wing item before leaving: a deep-fried Twinkie. Served with a strawberry dipping sauce, this gluttonous county fair mainstay was the perfect coda to a week of poultry excess.

Ghost Town, I shall return.

Wingstop

The national chain Wingstop projects 5.6 million wings will be sold at their 500 franchises on Super Bowl Sunday. I was loathe to include a muscle-bound corporate competitor in this roundup, but it's like featuring Chipotle in a burrito review — you need a standard of mediocrity by which to contrast excellence. As it turns out, "mediocre" would be unduly flattering.

There are Wingstops in Emeryville, San Leandro, Richmond, and Alameda, but I zeroed in on their ugliest East Bay franchise. In a raw-looking strip mall across from Wal-Mart sits the glorious Wingstop. Their wings aptly matched their digs.

The meat was simultaneously arid and gummy, skimpy on the bone, with a mild chemical tang that lingered near the uvula. The mainstay, a wussy buffalo hot wing, tasted like a sheen of red nail polish had been daubed on the limp chicken skin.

The Cajun wing was more generous with the heat, though a dusting of black pepper was apparently the lone signpost for the bayou. The Hawaiian wing was a predictably goopy pineapple-accented mess. And the dry garlic parmesan wing had a foul chalky flavor that clung to my palate like spoiled milk on the floor of a car.

Wing Town Cafe

Wing Town Cafe in Fruitvale serves up the mid-grade everyman wing I expected from Wingstop. It's a small family-owned wingery, tucked into a ramshackle shopping plaza anchored by a Mi Pueblo supermarket.

Laid end to end, Wing Town's drumettes and flats were about 30 percent bigger than Wingstop's, with a commensurately higher meat quotient. And while we aren't talking pasture-raised, organic meat here, the fresh-not-frozen chicken didn't give off that strange chemical whiff. The meat was a little dry, but the skin had a pronounced crispness, lightly browned on the edges.

Wing Town's basic hot wing uses an unobjectionable commercial sauce called Wing Time, a cayenne/tomato blend with a bit more acid than Frank Red's Hot. Wing Town's teriyaki (also a store-bought sauce) wing is salty and soy-heavy, but surprisingly not sweet. The Asian glaze wing was an easily forgotten sticky-sweet trifle.

"Oooh Weee!!" is Wing Town's house sauce, a custom blend of hot sauce, a thick molasses barbecue, and a bit of garlic. I OD'ed from a surfeit of flavors, but I appreciated the chemistry set experimentation.

A note from Wing Town co-owner Calvin Andrews: I really messed up by not trying his top seller, a house-made lemon pepper wing. I leave it to my readers not to make the same mistake.

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