November 29, 2022

thebeerhousecafe

World's finest Food

San Francisco is America’s most underrated chicken wing destination

Hot take: San Francisco is an underrated chicken wing city. There, I said it.

But it’s not just me saying it; the chicken wing game has some backers amongst chefs, too. “Everyone is so talented right now. Like everyone is guns blazing. It’s good to see,” said Shawn Naputi, chef and co-owner of Prubechu in the Mission.

Other cities obviously have a bigger reputation for wings, of course. Buffalo, New York, is the namesake of the fried drums and flats drenched in a mixture of hot sauce and butter. Atlanta is known for the lemon pepper category of wings. Washington, D.C., has mumbo sauce on theirs. Heck, even Portland, Oregon, was known as a wing city mostly for the fame brought by the now-defunct restaurant Pok Pok. But San Francisco is up there with the best. 

We don’t have one particular wing we’re famous for, like the aforementioned cities, but our game is strong. San Francisco has Portuguese chicken wings, Cajun wings, Cambodian wings, Indian wings, Jamaican, Korean, Chinese and Hawaiian wings, to highlight just a few. Name any culture from around the world and a restaurant here probably has a chicken wing item on the menu reflecting that country. The different cultural diasporas that make up our city represent their culture, in part, through the versatility of the hand-held scraps of a chicken carcass.

Wings from Hot Sauce and Panko on Nob Hill.

Wings from Hot Sauce and Panko on Nob Hill.

Nico Madrigal-Yankowski

The chicken, as a food, has often been seen as inferior to beef and pork throughout history, especially in America. Enslaved Black Americans were relegated to eat the “dunghill fowl” because they were not allowed to keep cattle or pigs for consumption. Entrepreneurial members of the community set up shop along the railroads of the South and sold their fried chicken to passengers at railway stations. No doubt every part of the chicken, including the wings, was used and sold during these times.

More recently, the original Buffalo wing can be traced back to, by some estimations, Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. Another version tells the story of John Young, Buffalo’s original King of Wings, who sold all kinds of soul food but championed the throwaway part of the chicken when they became his most popular item. Whatever you believe to be true, chicken wings are part of the current social lexicon for being the quintessential pub food.

My infatuation with chicken wings started about 10 years ago, when I was first introduced to the Buffalo wings at Kezar Pub, a sports bar that has been in operation since Kezar Stadium opened in 1925. It is one of my most cherished and formidable food memories because to this day my mouth salivates, my jaw clenches, my mind recreates the piquant flavor of the neon-orange sauce even at the mention of any chicken wing. Albeit not my first time having wings, it is the origin story of my quest for great chicken wings in San Francisco.

The Buffalo wings at Kezar Pub on Stanyan Street.

The Buffalo wings at Kezar Pub on Stanyan Street.

Nico Madrigal-Yankowski

Food is a reflection of the cultures and communities that inhabit a place. In San Francisco, our race and diversity index reads like this, according to 2019 stats from the U.S. Census Bureau: 46% White, 5% Black or African American, 34% Asian, 0.4% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 15% percent Hispanic or Latino. Compared with national data, our Asian community far outweighs the percentage of people that identify as Asian across the country, 34% compared to 6%. So it makes sense that many of the best chicken wings in San Francisco are of Asian origin. 


Take for instance, the dry-fried chicken wings at San Tung in the Inner Sunset. They are so popular, in fact, the son of the owner who handed me my wings the day I visited asked that I not highlight them because they are so backed up already, any more new press might clog up the kitchen even more. So I’ll leave it at this: San Tung, with their dry-fried wings in a glossy, auburn-colored gastrique and studded with finely minced golden bits of ginger and garlic hiding in the nooks and crannies, offers some of the city’s best, with a layer of fried skin that is so crisp it’s like a thin sheet of brittle toffee that you can break off and eat by itself.

The wings at Kezar Pub that started my quest are double-fried, which gives the chicken skin a bit of a leathery pull when biting in, but it’s a good leather, like the finest Italian leather the world has to offer, soft but firm with just enough tug for a pleasurable chew. They are then doused in a sauce that is a bit more acerbic to the palate than most Buffalo sauces, but it leaves the jowls sucking and slurping for any last remaining pools in the mouth. 

But these are the well-known options in the city. There are plenty of other finger-licking wings, too. I wanted to expand beyond the known wings of our city. San Francisco’s chicken wings have gotten more exciting in the past few years because places like Um.Ma., Prubechu, Hot Sauce and Panko and others have entered the scene.

Chef Christopher Oh at Um.Ma., a Korean restaurant located at 9th and Lincoln, is making playful twists on Korean fried chicken wings. Chicken wings are such a staple in Korean culture that “of course” he had to put them on the menu at Um.Ma.

“I don’t exactly know when it became such a phenomenon, but Koreans love to drink and eat fried chicken wings. They can’t have one without the other. There are restaurants built specifically for just fried chicken wings and beer,” Oh said. His are heavily breaded in a batter that makes it almost more batter than chicken, the citrus gochujang is his take on the classic fermented Korean condiment which most people like “because of the spicy kick.”

Another creative option on the menu are the honey butter wings. While not a recipe steeped in Korean tradition, these wings were inspired by “a huge Korean honey butter potato chip craze that was all the news.” The difference with these wings was the stickiness of the sauce, which clung to the breaded wings, clung to my lips and clung to my fingers as a dessert course to lick away. 

The turmeric-breaded chicken wings at Prubechu.

The turmeric-breaded chicken wings at Prubechu.

Nico Madrigal-Yankowski

At Prubechu, San Francisco’s only Chamorro restaurant, chef Naputi is frying up wings that are a confluence of his Guamanian heritage and his time as a cook in Italian restaurants in San Francisco. “I always liked that coriander-fennel combination,” he said. “So then we just added our own thing with the turmeric. And we use a lot of turmeric in Guam.” With a batter that is as crunchy as Rice Krispies and still tender and juicy inside, the yellow-tinged flap with a dry rub is remarkable. While chicken wings themselves aren’t a huge part of the cuisine in Guam, fried chicken is, and Naputi said he has wanted some sort of fried chicken item on his menu since the inception of Prubechu.

“The wings, this particular dish, was born through the pandemic. We were running this spice mix right when we first opened [in 2014 at one location and later re-opening in 2019 at their current location] when we were doing this carnitas kind of dish,” he recounted. “We were like, ‘All right we’re going to go back to the carnitas or like these pork shoulders and bread them and fry them and then it would be like this crispy pork.’ But then we were like, ‘Nah dude, wings is where it’s at. They’re fun.'”

So with people craving comfort food during the pandemic and the fact that they were easy to package and the breading held well during travel, the wings stayed on the menu.

The chicken wings with a Filipino barbecue sauce at Turo Grill and Cafe near the Balboa Bart station in San Francisco.

The chicken wings with a Filipino barbecue sauce at Turo Grill and Cafe near the Balboa Bart station in San Francisco.

Nico Madrigal-Yankowski

Turo Cafe and Grill, at 2275 San Jose Ave., is making Filipino food from family recipes. The chicken wings here? Small but mighty. Known as Wowo’s Crackling Chicken, the wings are breaded in a lightly salted flour batter with little bumps that look like the underbelly of a Crunch bar. The barbecue sauce is viscous and sweet like a cherry-flavored Jolly Rancher candy with a hint of black pepper, but it pairs well with savory wings. They can literally be eaten in one bite. 

The spicy chicken wings at Regent Thai in Noe Valley.

The spicy chicken wings at Regent Thai in Noe Valley.

Nico Madrigal-Yankowski

Regent Thai is a Noe Valley neighborhood favorite. Here, the flats are scored before being dropped in the fryer, no breading needed. The garlic and Thai chilis are minced into oblivion, creating red ribbons of candied sweet heat that wrap around the drums and flats.

Hand butterflied wings at Moshi Moshi near the Chase Center in the Dogpatch.

Hand butterflied wings at Moshi Moshi near the Chase Center in the Dogpatch.

Nico Madrigal-Yankowski

At Moshi Moshi, a Japanese restaurant in Dogpatch, each chicken wing is butterflied by hand and char-grilled over an open flame creating deep crevasses that fill with flavorful chicken-garlic-chili juices between the crunchy grill marks. Ask for yuzu kosho sauce to be drizzled on top for a kick of extra heat.

Sweet heat from Frisco Fried in the Bayview.

Sweet heat from Frisco Fried in the Bayview.

Nico Madrigal-Yankowski

With the diversity of San Francisco, it makes sense that we would have some of the most creative chicken wings in the county. Some are traditional recipes. Others are a born from chefs’ cultural backgrounds and work experiences in fine-dining kitchens. All have a unique flair that could only be described as San Franciscan. 

We don’t need to have a standout wing to put us on the map. What we have is perfect, an array of wing selections to satisfy everyone’s palate. Don’t think of chicken wings as an American food anymore. Think of them as a journey into another culture.

My new hot take: San Francisco has the best chicken wings in the country.