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With the Giants approaching the playoffs and the 49ers re-emerging, it's the season for chicken wings in S.F. The spicy appetizers are as ubiquitous on bar menus as cheap beer, but the city's most well-known source isn't a sports bar at all. Wing Wings has elevated the often-mediocre bar snack into a culinary delicacy, turning out fried-to-order chicken wings with eight intriguing sauces from its tiny storefront in the Lower Haight. Best of all, they'll deliver them to your door in time for the game.
You can eat in the small cafe — plenty of the neighborhood's young, hip residents do, crouched on stools at the two wooden counters along the walls, focused on their baskets of saucy wings with tunnel-vision intensity. Instead of televisions blasting sports, the room's ambiance reflects its hipster ethos and clientele: An iPod player designed to look like an old-school boombox blasts an eclectic music mix, there are orange poured-concrete floors and 1970s wooden siding, and tattooed bicycle delivery guys come in at regular intervals to pick up more orders for hungry San Franciscans. There's no alcohol, but a tart housemade limeade pairs well with the food.
Wing Wings was opened a little more than a year ago by Little Skillet alum Christian Ciscle, who still runs it with a singular focus on chicken wings. The simple menu offers portions in small (five wings, one sauce), medium (10 wings, two sauces), and large (25 wings, two sauces). Ciscle's familiarity with the chickeny arts is evident: The meaty, tender, free-range wings are given a quick whirl in the deep fryer to attain a nice, not-too-heavy crust, then dressed in a variety of sauces both familiar and exotic.
San Francisco, CA 94117
Region: Haight/ Fillmore
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The best of the sauces is the signature Wing Wings, a dark, sticky, soy-and-molasses-based concoction fortified with chile, ginger, garlic, and rice vinegar that manages to be both sweet and spicy, and totally craveable. Another Asian-inspired sauce, the Angry Korean, is a cult favorite — it's made from Korean chile paste reminiscent of the sauce on bibimbap, and has more heat than the restaurant's eponymous blend. There's also a solid take on buffalo sauce in both mild and hot, and though the hot isn't nuclear, you'd do well to pay an extra 50 cents for a container of blue cheese dip.
Most of the wing sauces are thinner than your typical bar's, and the excess tends to pool in the bottom of the basket or delivery container. If you want to save your fingers and napkins, try the plain dry rub wings, basically fried chicken without a buttermilk crust, which have a crisp, lemony, crunchy skin that allows the flavor of the chicken to come through. The subtle orange-miso sauce also tastes mostly of chicken, with a light citrus flavor and umami depth.
Among the lesser sauces are the disappointingly one-note sweet barbecue sauce, though it could be livened up with one of the menu's add-ons like bacon or chicharrones; the honey mustard, which has a strong mustard flavor that doesn't quite harmonize with the honey or the wings; and the herb blend, which turned out to be a Jamaican jerk-inspired green sauce that tastes vegetal and garlicky, but needed an add-on like fresh chiles to come together.
That green sauce works much better on the chicken salad sandwich. It seems like a strange menu item at first, but that's before you order it and find it's the perfect counterpoint to the heat of the wings. The chicken salad is a well-seasoned mash of shredded chicken and mayo, but shines when spruced up with the verdant herb blend and piled on a glorious buttermilk biscuit.
Besides the wings, the assorted biscuits are the best things on the menu. The simple buttermilk is satisfying, but even better is the biscuit topped with a thick layer of brown sugar and a bit of cracked black pepper — it feels like dessert and a savory accompaniment all at once. The bacon, poppy seed, and green onion biscuit is coiled like a cinnamon roll; we weren't huge fans of its salt onslaught, but liked the bacon flavor.
Sides like dill potato salad, carrot- and pickle-laced macaroni salad, and vinegar-based coleslaw are fine, if unmemorable — they act as foils for the wings, which is all one really requires. A generous serving of deep-fried oyster mushrooms had too much salty breading to let the juicy mushroom flavor come through. Hand-cut fries are seasoned with an addictive spice blend, and can be topped with chili or gravy for ideal drunk food.
Chicken wings were once considered a throwaway part of the chicken, and their reinvention as bar food is widely credited to the Anchor Tavern in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1964. As sports bars emerged in the '80s and the country's interest in boneless, skinless chicken breasts drove the price of other chicken parts down, wings became the go-to bar snack for sports fans. Here, made with local poultry and served with international flavor, they've become something uniquely San Franciscan.