As the heart of winter sets in, the food that comforts me most is the simple chicken wing. Sure my slow cooker makes a sensible, hearty meal and lasagna heats up the kitchen with a homey smell, but there is something primal that occurs while separating spiced poultry from the bone (and for me a bit of crispiness helps in the transformative process).
Eating tasty chicken wings satsifies my tastebuds, mouthfeel desires and frankly, makes me feel slightly tough—tearing into my food like an animal would. This week, I told myself it was a necessity to taste test some wings. Of course, it was research for my New Year's resolution to learn to make great fried chicken (nice excuse, eh?).
Because I'm a big fan of supporting local, independent joints to keep the money circulating within the neighborhood, I went on the hunt for the wings within a 20 block radius. I'd been reading up on The 3/50 Project, which explains that if you spend $100 in a locally-owned independent business, 68% of the money remains in the neighborhood. If you spend that same $100 in a national chain, only 43% stays in the area. Besides, my instincts tell me that the indies generally make better eats.
With my appetite and economic stance in tow, seasoned eaters pointed me to two places, both on Nicollet Avenue. Shorty & Wags, at West 38th Street and C & G's Smoking Barbecue, near West 48th Street were recommended to me as straight up joints. You get wings and fries in the traditional styrofoam take-out container (which is going to become an art project, I swear), and 'ambience' is not a visual or aural quality, but is judged purely with one's nose.
That's what I was looking for—not teriyaki flavors, nor a pairing with a lovely chenin blanc (Although I do suggest reading this fun wine pairing guide from Hello Vino should you be wanting to elevate your wing experience).
I wanted the clean but functional storefront and nothing more in the way of amenities outside of a few wet naps and some old People magazines. And so, I strode into C & G's Smoking Barbecue on a cold weekday evening. One customer was waiting in the tiny seating area as a gal cheerfully took my order.
"4-piece wings with fries," I said confidently. "Oh, and a half BBQ chicken with coleslaw." That was to sate my husband while I ate the wings.
She hustled to the back, which, as expected, cannot be seen by the customers. It's a secret lair from which voices emit and vittles emerge. Are there special BBQ elves back there?
After what seemed like an eternity, but was more like a five minutes, my wing liasion returned with my drug of choice. I put down the tattered magazine and settled my bill. As I did, she told me that they are now closed on Sundays, as they are quite busy and use that day to catch up.
Right on people—keep spending your wing dollars locally!
Upon arriving home, I spread out my food loot onto the coffee table and we unceremoniously dug in. The C & G's four-piece wing meal cost me $3.74 and came with a choice of fries, coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans or mac & cheese. A small container of barbecue sauce was included.
The wings were crispy at the edges and the meat had tons of moisture. Our coleslaw was unremarkable but provided a necessary semi-veggie accompaniment. The sweet and mild BBQ sauce was fine but not needed as the chicken had seasoning directly on it. I added Tabasco, but then again, I add it to everything. The fries were limp but edible. The meals each came with two slices of white bread.
We went to bed early that night. Full.
The next day, I hustled myself over to Shorty & Wags to pick up some lunch wings. I got there at 11:4o a.m. and a line was already forming. A utility worker sat in his car in the back parking lot, staying warm until the magical door opened. A woman came from the bus stop to wait. People discussed the Tuesday and Thursday original wing special in earnest.
The counter woman opened the doors at noon and immediately a line of at least 10 people snaked around the place, which features a few stools and a counter. All orders are placed at the register. And much like C & G's (and all serious places), the cooking was done behind the proverbial wall.
I listened to the regulars and thought about how NPR could park themselves in this place for a day and hear some amazing stories. But, I was on a mission, so instead of marvelling at the diversity of Shorty & Wag's patrons, I eavesdropped on a conversation about the various sauces offered with the wings. And, I watched with wonder as a guy from the post office picked up about twenty lunches.
When my turn came I ordered the four wing dinner with hojos and spicy BBQ sauce, got my number and waited the requisite five minutes. The "4 Wing Dinner" ran me $6.92. I also picked up a side of fried okra, because well, in Minnesota, your okra opportunities can be somewhat limited. Next time, I will call in my order so I can move to the front of the line.
Again, I raced home and set up shop in front of the television. The wings were heavily seasoned and a little salty and gritty for my taste but still decent. The sauce, a dark and sweet style BBQ, was delicious and I happily dipped my hojos in it. The okra satisfied the urge, but I prefer a solid fried texture on the outside. However, it was cooked right, as it was not slimy at all.
I had to take a nap after finishing it.
What was the upshot of my two fowl-based suppers? While both places scratched the itch, neither were my completely to my liking. The fries at C & G's and the wings at Shorty's could use more crispiness. I love all the sauce choices at Shorty's, but found the flavor of the actual chicken at C & G's more delicious. I liked the hojos, but the C & G's plate was cheaper.
However, I'll keep patronizing both places. Yes, really. And why?
This expedition taught me about customer loyalty, chicken stand culture and well, sleeping, and I was pleased with what I experienced. Fans of C & G's have kept a young business alive and kicking in Tangletown, and Shorty & Wags was a culture unto itself that inspired folks to wait, chat and run from the bus stop in order to grab a quick 12 wing special.
These joints remind me that true take-out can be a beautifully uncomplicated thing. I love micro greens and grass-fed beef as much as the next guy, but it can't fill the space that wings, fries and hojos do.
So, my future will definitely mean regular trips to Shorty's and C & G's. Perhaps next time, it'll be a catfish comparison. And, I'll be sure to allow for some nap time when I do it.