A wing tour of New Orleans
To hear Laine Kaplan-Levenson interview local wing enthusiasts on WWNO radio, click here.
After four decades in New Orleans, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the city’s culinary offerings, whether you’re dishing roast beef po-poy dives or white chocolate bread pudding venues.
So when a couple of young friends assured me that New Orleans has some great under-the-radar wing places, you can understand my doubts.
Really? New Orleans, home of crawfish etouffee and wedding cake snoballs, a proficient purveyor of … chicken wings?
In light of this Great Americana-come-to-town hoopla that is the Super Bowl, a wing tour surely was in order. After all, chicken wings are the iconic Super Bowl party food, with Americans expected to consume 1.23 billion chicken wing pieces on Sunday.
That makes for a potential wing shortage at this time of year, says Bayou Hot Wings co-founder Kyle Makepeace. “Super Bowl is by far our biggest day,” he says. “Starting two or three weeks before, all the big wing places around the country start buying up wings, and the price skyrockets.”
So, in order to help you make the most of your weekend wing count, our intrepid group of tasters hit the road on Sunday to sample the best that the Big Easy has to offer.
Not surprisingly, this being New Orleans, we, well, winged it. We talked to friends, eavesdropped on water-cooler conversations, and cross-referenced what we heard with sites like Yelp and Urban Spoon. We came up with half a dozen best local wing bets. Our group included NolaVie’s two founders, a WWNO radio producer and the associate director of Bard College’s local liberal arts program for high-school students.
In New Orleans, that makes us tasting experts. We’re all foodies here, darlin’.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that: 1.) In a city as obsessed with food as this one, great wings can indeed be found; and 2.) The best ones have an only-in-New Orleans vibe that set them apart from The Great Elsewhere.
Bite into a Steen’s Cane Honey BBQ wing at Bayou Hot Wings and tell me you could reproduce that in, say, Buffalo.
One more thing about wings and New Orleans: Here we know how to fry. In culinary terms, it’s our lay-up shot, our line drive. We are born to the knowledge of meat lightly dredged in flour seasoned with spices and dropped into just the right depth of just the right temperature hot oil.
So, in the Crescent City, it can be difficult to tell where fried chicken ends and wings begin. Some local favorites, like McHardy’s, are, arguably, simply fried chicken outlets.
Does it matter? No. But since the traditional Buffalo wing is usually fried without the flour coating, we thought you should be aware. You may not readily find the wing of the American heartland in New Orleans. But what you will find is, like so much else here, unrepentantly original.
A NOLA WING TOUR
Bayou Hot Wings
6221 S. Claiborne Ave.
Six pieces: $4.49 (no sauce); $4.99 (cooked with sauce)
Bayou Hot Wings came about, says chef Kyle Makepeace, as sort of a joke. “We were talking one day about our favorite wings, and realized they all came from pizza places. We thought, wow, in a city like New Orleans, that’s really sad. We should start our own wing place, where we make all the sauces.”
They did, and the result is an Uptown wingery long on handcrafted flavors, veering toward Southern and Asian fusion. You can get a few sides, including fried pickles, as well as gator bites or frog legs, but the culinary focus is on the title product.
The wings are all flour-batter fried, and you can order them soaked in flavor or with sauces on the side. Flavored wings are rated for heat index, from one to five peppers. The most popular wing, Bayou Sweet Heat, is a signature blend laced with Crystal hot sauce. The Steen’s Cane Honey BBQ is quintessentially Southern, and the Thai Chili Glaze a lovely mix of hot and sweet. A quartet of homemade dipping sauces includes ranch, honey mustard, bleu cheese and remoulade.
Makepeace tells us that Adam Richman of Travel Channel’s Man V. Nation dropped by recently for a wing story that will air Wednesday – so don’t tarry over your takeout order. Indoor stools and a couple of outdoor picnic tables allow onsite sampling.
Consensus: Uptown dining where wings get a deft culinary touch.
759 N. Claiborne Ave.
10 pieces, $8.50
15 pieces, $12.35
20 pieces, $17
It’s SNACK, not SHACK, but everybody seems to call it Wing Shack anyway. And Wing Snack is to wings what Sno Wizard is to snoballs, from walk-up window to hand-lettered list of flavors to standing-room-only crowd waiting for their fry-ups.
While such local culinary calling cards as crawfish balls, crab cakes and fried okra round out the menu, this place is really all about wings. Seventeen flavors of them, from Lemon Pepper and Arizona to Honey Mustard and Hot Garlic Parmesan and something called Ro-Go.
We sampled honey mustard wings, with a pungent mustard accent that pushed the honey into a pleasing background, and the hot wings, slathered in tangy orange sauce redolent with cayenne. This is not your dainty dip and eat wing, but intense, heavily steeped parts rich with character.
The scarlet door, honey-mustard yellow walls and barbeque brown wainscoting are as earthy as the menu; this is not a dine-in place, although we picnicked spontaneously on a nearby stoop. Signs outside include touts for Crime Stoppers and a tattoo parlor, and those inside bear such admonitions as, “Staff will NOT wait for you to get money from your car.”
The background to all this is a cacophony of traffic noises and a view of colorful graffiti on concrete posts, because you’re standing underneath the Claiborne overpass on the edge of Treme. And you might even be doing this at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, which is when Wing Snack closes.
Lagniappe: Wash it down with the Ghetto Punch, a red Koolaid lookalike whose syrupy sweetness resonates well with the robust wings.
Consensus: Gritty downtown dining under the overpass. It’s the real thing.
Manchu Food Store
1413 N. Claiborne Ave.
Wing platter with 8 plain pieces, French fries or fried rice, $4.89
Wing platter with 8 barbecued pieces, French fries or fried rice, $5.39
Manchu is to wings what Verti Mart is to po-boys: A walk-in grocery that happens to serve up an iconic version of its proffered entree. The décor is standard New Orleans dive: Concrete floors, a few shelves holding CheeWees and cleaning agents, a beer and drink wall on one side, a glass case adjacent crowded with Bengay, cigarettes and baby oil, and long lines at both service windows at the front of the store.
While the menu includes seafood and pork chop platters, most people we saw were walking out with towering, steaming pans of foil-topped wings. And wings here are reduced to basics: plain or barbecue. The former is simply fried in a flour batter with a substantial spice that creeps in after a few bites, the latter slathered with a sweet sauce. The Vietnamese underpinnings are seen in the sides, fried rice in addition to crisply rendered French fries, as well as the egg rolls and yatkamein.
Wing lovers we talked to confided that Manchu is where they come when feeding a crowd: the 100-wing special costs just $41.70.
Consensus: Crowd-pleasers: The plain, basic wings here are a sure bet.
McHardy’s Chicken ‘n Fixin'
1458 N. Broad Street
10 pieces fried wings, $5.49
10 pieces honey BBQ wings, $4.99
If Wing Snack is gritty downtown, and Bayou Hot Wings gourmet Uptown, then McHardy’s is down-to-earth Mid-City. The airy waiting room is strewn with brightly colored benches, salmon pink and purple walls and lively New Orleans paintings. A pair of ceiling fans whir overhead, and fry cooks dip baskets into hot oil behind a long, low counter.
The crowd on Sunday ran to after-church gentry in fine attire, lining up for a range of finely fried offerings, from catfish to chicken. This is Southern frying at its most fundamental: peppered flour dredge, deep oil vats, wire cooling pans.
Though McHardy’s reputation is built upon its fried chicken, the wings are a solid option, not to be overlooked. They come in only two types: fried and honey barbecue. The former is crisp and cooked to order, the latter sweet and long on the honey. The allure here lies as much in the “fixens” as the wings, with red beans and rice, mac and cheese, fried okra and dirty rice among the offerings.
Consensus: Is it wings or fried chicken? Do we care? Not at all. This is plate lunch heaven.
Fleury of Wings
5339 Franklin Ave.
6 pieces, $4.99
10 pieces, $8.99
This Gentilly eatery serves up wings in three dozen -- yep, three dozen -- flavors, from no-frills Hot Lemon Pepper to exotica like Terminator Teriyaki and Jamaican Jerk. Situated a couple of doors down from JuJu Bag Cafe, Fleury's clean, open interior is peppered with tables and booths, making this a double treat: wing wealth and eat-in dining. Even air-conditioning. And parking.
We tried the Hot Lemon Pepper, Garlic Parmesan, Hot Honey Mustard and Honey Barbecue. They ranged from dry-rub to heavily sauced, and each had its admirers. Which is a good thing: When diners start arguing the advantages of one wing's lemon seasoning over another's mustard glaze, you know you've got a winning culinary conversation-starter on the table.
The restaurant also offers poboys, seafood plates and hot tamales -- but the wings here take, and deserve, center stage.
Consensus: If you like a lot of seasoning and a lot of choices, put a Gentilly road trip on your agenda.
231 N.Carrollton Ave.
8 pieces with one side, $7.49
This nationwide chain was founded in Covington in 2001, so if you’re going to go with a fast-food commercial enterprise, WOW Café and Wingery is the obvious choice. In fact, the company opened its first airport franchise this month at Louis Armstrong Airport, so Super Bowl arrivals to New Orleans will be greeted by the city’s own contribution to world wingery.
We stopped in at the Carrollton Avenue location, which is set apart from most other wing vendors (Fleury is the exception) by the fact that it’s a full-service restaurant: booths, air-conditioning, waiters, outdoor seating.
The menu is wide-ranging but concentrates on its namesake dish with an array of 17 wing flavors and two trademark rubs. Wings can be ordered “dry,” with sauces on the side, or drizzled in sauce. We tested the Thai Peanut (rich, creamy brown sauce topped with peanuts), the salt and vinegar rub (rich and briny) and the standard but popular Buffalo II (curiously, not our favorite, with its heavy vinegar tones).
Consensus: Chain Shmain: These guys will deliver to your doorstep!
So there you have your NOLA wing tour. We certainly don't claim to be exhaustive. Wing adherents tell us about the crispness of the frying at McKenzie's Chicken in a Box, and the authenticity of the Buffalo wings at Bricks Courtyard Cafe and Grill.
Meanwhile, two highly touted wingeries have recently shut down -- Jazzy Wings, and Finger Lickin' Wings on Jackson, whose owner, bounce star and City Council candidate 10th Ward Buck, attributed his wing demise to his inability to secure a liquor license.
Wings may seem foreign here, but that sure sounds like New Orleans.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]