Editors note: We know that chicken wings are in short supply and the prices have gone up (more on the chicken wing shortage here) but since it is super bowl weekend we still had to seek out the best chicken wings in town.
[If you are looking for vegan wings, check out our guide to the best seitan wings in Pittsburgh.]
It’s 11 at night, and we are four hours into band practice. This band looks like a power trio, but it’s all about intricate rhythms. It’s brain food, but music cannot satiate every need. Hunger is setting in. Through double-masks and a distance of at least 10 feet, my bandmates, PJ Roduta and Matt Aelmore, and I start talking about chicken wings.
Chicken wings are easy to find. Nearly every pizza place has wings. We’ve been known to visit Caliente in Bloomfield for late-night wings after playing a show. You can get dry rub flavors like Old Bay, Ranch Dust, and Jamaican Jerk or wet rub flavors like Honey BBQ, Bourbon Maple Bacon, and Sweet Thai Chili.
I must admit that I usually get wings as an afterthought. I’m already somewhere when I notice wings on the menu. I love the wings at Station, also in Bloomfield. These crispy wings are brined for two days, tossed in seasoned tapioca starch, cryovaced, deep fried, tossed with salsa rojo, and topped with parsley, chives, and parmesan foam. They are available for take out, although Station will close for a break in February, reopening in March.
Matt says that his new favorite spot for wings is Porky’s Bar & Grill in Etna. They have a lot of flavors — Apple Bacon BBQ, Garlic Parmesan, General Tso’s — but Matt’s favorite wings are only available once a week or so when Porky’s gets their smoker going for some fine smoked wings. Check their Facebook page for when that is–usually Wednesdays. Matt also recommends the Honey Habanero Wings at Burgatory.
The wing world is both easy and hard to navigate. On the one hand, wings are easy to find and they’re cheap. Buy some, try some rubs, try some sauces. On the other hand, there can be divides. The whole wing vs. the flat vs. the drumette. There’s fried, grilled, smoked, and baked wings. There are hundreds of flavors. Everyone has their favorite. Some folks lean into chicken wing arguments; others sit back, perk up their ears, and try to learn something.
If I think about it, most of my likes and preferences about nearly everything have originated in conversation with a friend. Word of mouth is one of the most pleasing ways to learn. To honor that, I asked a number of friends, new and old, about their favorite chicken wings in the area.
Jamal Etienne-Harrigan runs The Smokey City’s 412 BBQ, and his Uncle Jammy’s brand of sauces and rubs delves into some funky flavors like the avocado-jalapeno “Area 51” sauce and the chili-garlic “Say Yes to Sriracha BBQ” sauce. Elsewhere, things get conceptual. Riffing on Vantablack, one of the world’s darkest colors, Jamal’s “Vanta B. Startin. Somethin.” sauce uses dark larger and cuttlefish ink for what he tauts as the “very first all-black BBQ Sauce.”
But when it comes to finding a good place to eat chicken wings, Jamal looks for a solid core of the basics. “What you should look for is somebody that has a good hot, a good medium, a good ranch,” explains Jamal. “If the restaurant can perform on the core sauces, then you can start to check out their dry rubs and off-the-wall things.”
It sounds like an evolution, as if the restaurant is there for you as you develop your palette and experiment with flavors. It’s also good business sense. “As a customer, yeah, you want to see all the outrageous stuff, but if you see a good core it’s going to make for a more trusting situation. You want to have transitions on the menu. That way, you can bring a wider range of people with you.”
When it comes to outrageous flavors, “It seems elementary, but you need to make sure the sauce goes with chicken. Sometimes people can out-think themselves.
And it’s not all about the sauce. “I look for wings that are a good size. I like juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside.”
Jamal’s own tastes run a bit classic. At the Hop House in Ross Township, Jamal likes the Ranch and Honey Jalapeno wings. His local wing place is Portofino’s Pizza & Pasta in Crafton, and he’s had good wings at R & B’s Pizza Place in Bellevue and Wings & A Prayer in Shadyside.
[Want to learn more about how Jamal started Uncle Jammy’s? Take a listen to Episode 57 of our podcast.]
One of my favorite Pittsburgh restaurants, now relegated to my personal hall of fame after it closed a few years ago, was Lydiah’s Coffee House in Downtown Pittsburgh. Owner Lydiah Wanyoike served one dish a day of flavor-packed Kenyan food. I don’t recall any chicken wings, but I definitely consumed a good number of chicken legs smothered in a robust curry.
“I’m all for yummy chicken wings. I love the [peppery honey-mustard] Black and Gold wings at Bigham Tavern in Mount Washington.”
Lydiah also recommends the Mango Habanero wings from Buffalo Wild Wings, and the wings from Art’s Tavern in the Strip District.
Over text, Lydiah adds, “I also prefer FLATS ONLY,” followed by a crying laughing face.
My brother-in-law Jake Smith is always posting Instagram pictures of grilled meats–baby back ribs, strip loin, chicken thighs. One item that I was less familiar with was the grilled chicken wing.
“Well, I like grilled chicken wings, but I really like coal-fired chicken wings. I prefer those to fried wings,” says Jake. “I like the char on them–that pizza oven char. Without breading, it’s more like a good piece of marinated chicken where the fat of the wing adds flavor.”
If you aren’t invited over for a cookout, Jake recommends the coal-fired wings at The Oven Pizza Co. in Wexford and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza (multiple locations). “Anthony’s mixes the wings with onions, which adds sweetness. It’s more of an appetizer.”
For non-grilled wings, Jake recommends the whole wings at Fat Head’s in the South Side, and the only wing option at Franklin Inn Mexican Restaurant in Franklin Park. “They only have one flavor. It’s hot.”
I don’t know anyone like Alexi Morrissey. I’ve seen him MC events, wail on guitar, craft ceramic milk bottles, and honk loudly at me from multiple street corners while driving an ice cream truck. He designed me a set of modular shelving units dubbed CRELFS, and years ago, I handed him $35 in exchange for an improvised story typed on a typewriter in a dark room.
When it comes to chicken wings, Alexi has the best response: “My attitude about chicken wings is much like coffee. The best chicken wings are the ones you have. Even terrible wings are better than no wings.”
If you’re feeling up for a treat, Alexi orders wings from Pizzeria Davide in the Strip District. “I get them crispy and dry with sauce on the side,” he says.
Different situations call for different wings. “If I’m just hanging with my kids and don’t want to cook, and I want to eat standing up in my ex-wife’s kitchen staring out the window watching her cats kill rabbits and drag squirrels right out of trees,” says Alexi, “I eat wings from Pizza Ephesus in Bellevue.” Try the BBQ sauce.
A less specific situation that many of us are looking forward to is sitting down in a restaurant after having received the COVID-19 vaccine. Alexi’s first post-vaccine stop will be Sidelines in Millvale. There’s also a second location in Sewickley. “They have a really extensive wing menu. I go there, because it’s where David Lynch would go if he was in town.”
Breakfast, burritos and smashburgers
If you are looking for more local eats, we have some suggestions!
- Guide to breakfast eats
- All of the places to find a burrito in Pittsburgh
- 8 places to find a smashburger in Pittsburgh
📸 Header Photo: wings from Caliente. Photo credit: David Bernabo.