Wing War

Wing War (2010-2011) is a series that chronicled my search for the best chicken wings in San Diego. The battle ended when I named my number one pick in CityBeat's 2011 Best-of issue. Find out who prevailed at the end of this page. 

WARNING: I will wage restaurants, politicians, local journalists and children under 10 against each other in my hunt for the best wings. No one is safe. Especially not chickens.

Pictured Below: The great Hot Wing Mortar Attack of 2009 at Hamilton’s Cafe. I literally lost control of my face after trying the menu’s 3rd hottest wings.
I love wings. Who doesn’t? Spicy, sweet, tangy, BBQ’d, simply seasoned, twice fried, sashimi; a wing has yet to land before me and escape uneaten. In 2010, I took my love for wings to the next level and embarked on a truly horrific mission: hunt, devour, and report on the best wings in San Diego.
For whatever reasons (missed dates, extended bathroom breaks at work, bad breath), I quit wings altogether for a long, long time. Until now.
So here’s the deal, San Diego:
I want to know where YOU eat YOUR wings. Since I only have 1 stomach, please make serious recommendations only.
Example 1: Unacceptable ’Hey Granite there’s this place my sister went and ate wings. I don’t talk to her anymore, but my homeboy who does said she said they were pretty good.’
Example 2: Acceptable ’Yo G! My family’s been ordering wings from ____ every Charger home game since 1993. You have to try them!’
*Remember, the only criteria is ‘chicken wing.’ I’m interested in all styles of wings. They do not have to be ‘hot.’
I’ll be blogging my thoughts on your so-called favorites, and calling you out if you steer me wrong. Of course, after all my research is complete, the best wings in town will be named.


Salt and pepper wings from Golden Chopsticks in National City.
Two very different styles of wings start my search for the city’s best...

The light batter coating the plump wings above was crispy, golden and pushed the bounds ‘how salty is too salty?’ What makes these wings so special are the many textures at play; crispy batter, a palatable layer of fat, and juicy, fall-off-the-bone meat (easy to eat— no gnawing at bones or chewing on cartilage like it's gum). The green onion, chili and garlic flake topping was a nice touch on flavorful wings that really didn’t need any garnish or sauce. For around 6 bucks this is a large portion of meaty wings. 619.336.1888
Farm to table wings courtesy of El Take it Easy. 
Nice heat on the sauce, Curtis Womach pastured chicken tasted great, and creamy blue cheese dressing with slices of jicama (carrot swap) were nice adds. There is definitely something to be said about the amount of fat on pastured wings, compared to the poor chicken farmed (albeit tasty) ones. If you’re looking for flavorful wings with less skin and fat, and take comfort in knowing that your food died happy, these wings are for you.
Golden Chopsticks ruled this first post.


                 Close-ups don’t lie: the wings at Dirty Birds in Pacific Beach lacked crispy skins. 
The first casualty in Wing War 2010, I’ll recap why Dirty Birds wasn’t fit to survive the battle:
1. Non-crispy skins
I don’t give a rat’s ass how tasty the chicken is, animal skin is not meant to be chewed like gum.
2. Chewy flesh
So far my studies show that that non-crispy skin catalyzes a domino effect of wing failures. Gummy skin means chewy meat, not the fall-off-the-bone, multi-textured wings fit for this battle.
3. Frank’s RedHot sauce
As I’ve said before, Frank’s RedHot sauce is a cheap way out of making your own damn wing sauce. Its distinguishing punch isn’t flavorful heat, but an acidic blast of vinegar that bullies any underlying flavors, leaving your palate tore up.
The photographer and I ordered the two ‘most popular’ varieties, as advised by our (albeit nice and cute) server:
  • The ‘Dirty Ranch’ were Frank’s RedHot coated wings seemingly dunked in Ranch dressing. Eh.
  • Next up were the ‘spicy honey’ wings that were again coated with Frank’s, and had a bit of sweetness. But, the residing qualities of these wings were soggy skin, and the nasal burn of that god awful red stuff.
Dirty Birds serves standard bar food, and their wings are on par with that. They were not awful, they were not great, but ‘good’ is a stretch for these tyrannical taste buds.
(NOTE: If you’d like to give DB’s a try, do so from 3-6pm Mon-Fri for 1/2 price wings)


I must credit one of my Twitter followers, Elizabeth, for recommending the spicy garlic wings at OB Noodle House as a Wing War 2010 contender. Although I claim to be a wing-munching expert, with so many choices and only one stomach, I depend on tips like these- so thank you!
As promised, these wings weren’t disappointing; spicy, crunchy, slightly sweet and very garlicky. The vivid photograph above hints that a chili sauce of some kind is involved, and biting into a wingette proved this theory correct. The bright red chili marinade (whose ingredients were unbeknownst to our server) penetrated deep into the chicken’s flesh making it very tender and flavorful.
Between the moist meat, crispy skin and dusting of toasted garlic flakes, these wings are on the front line of battle Wing War!
Couple gripes/notes:
I wish OB noodle house served wingettes, and drumettes. Although I prefer wingettes, a variety would have been nice. In case you’re unfamiliar with chicken anatomy:
Also, close to 11 bucks for 10 wings is expensive. I know this is about the median price for a plate of quality wings, but still… my $3 La Chouffe Golden Ale partially made up for this. (OB Noodle House has a great happy hour from 3-6pm and offers 1/2 off a solid selection of craft beers.)


Doubt and contemplation @Dirty Birds in Pacific Beach.
After day 4 of Wing War, I was buggin’ out. Was it the heartburn, abdominal discomfort, or the car malfunction that resulted in an hour long bus ride from Pacific Beach to downtown? As we bounced along on that gurgling bus after eating 3 varieties of hot wings in 2 hours, all I could do was place a cigarette between my lips, close my eyes, and think of a heaven where there were no chickens, or the need for public transportation.
When we weren’t thinking of our happy places, the city bus did in fact provide a reasonable backdrop to express our wing grievances, loud and clear.
The following three points were made, and agreed upon:
  • Crispy skin isn’t just delicious, it’s fucking mandatory. From now on, no more wasted time and calories on chewy wings.
  • The introduction of Frank’s RedHot sauce has ruined the nation’s chances of experiencing authentic Buffalo-style chicken wings outside of Buffalo. Frank’s vinegary sauce has enough acid in it to rip a hole through Keith Richards’ palate, a guy who eats a pack of Reds for breakfast. How do I even taste the chicken drowning under layers of this shit? It could be rotten for all I know.
  • Asia is (so far) kicking America’s ass in Wing War 2010. This can be attributed to 2 varieties consumed (Golden Chopsticks, OB Noodle House), both with fantastic original seasonings, and perfectly crisped skins.
  • To ensure crispy wings, I will ask servers if they come crispy, or if that’s a special order thing. Special order? Forget about it. 
  • I will continue looking for non-Asian wingeries, however, I’ll root for the side with the tastiest interpretation. No discrimination whatsoever!
  • Before venturing out for hot wings, I will call ahead and find out if Frank is involved. If he is, I will condemn the establishment unsuitable for a war of these standards.
It’s going to be a busy week at the @saysgranite office. I’ve got a list of wings to screen, and possibly eat. Keep it here for the play-by-play.
Last date with Frank @Dirty Birds in Pacific Beach.

The wings at Royal Mandarin plummet in comparison to their across-the-street rival, Golden Chopsticks.
After revealing the early favorite in Wing War 2010, several people pointed me in the direction of Royal Mandarin. "If you like the salt and pepper wings at Golden Chopsticks, then you have to try Royal Mandarin’s— they’re the best!" Naturally I went, ordered, and ate. After trying both renditions of the ultimate Chinese-Filipino party snack food, I can say with all certainty that Royal Mandarin is dead alongside Dirty Birds in Wing War 2010.
1. Un-toothsome batter. Bitching for a week about non-crunchy chicken skin sure bit me in the ass at Royal Mandarin. The batter was just too damn crunchy in comparison to Golden Chopsticks’, whose coating managed a simultaneously fluffy and crispy wing experience.
2. Squirrely Seasonings. I have a high tolerance for salt, so if I say something’s too salty, YOU might not be able to eat it at all. While the sodium singe left my mouth a-scorch, the actual chicken was completely uneventful; not juicy and not at all flavorful. When taste buds go from full throttle to zilch all in one bite, there’s a problemo. Some call this crap.
I wondered out loud what was up with all the salty crystals flecking the wings, and then my dining partner told me it was MSG.
The next Chernobyl, Wing War 2010: Eat these MSG wings and you’ll sprout a third eye!!!

You (like me) probably haven’t seen MSG in such large doses, as it’s usually mixed into deliciously savory items like the Japanese mayo and popular bedside refreshment, Kewpie. The controversial, stigmatized flavor enhancer was reviewed by the FDA in 1995 and remains on the market, so don’t get too worked up knowing that it’s still used in a lot of Asian recipes. No matter what your stance on MSG, nothing is good in such high doses, and I was literally brushing it off the wings before eating. Shame.
Afterthought Toppings
As you can see in the photograph, a few large strips of green onion were placed on the heap of MSG and wings. What in the hell for? Am I supposed to chew on these like hay or something? At Golden Chopsticks, a delightful confetti of diced green onion, chili flake and garlic were just the right toppings for salty wings, providing a fresh, tangy contrast-- not even close to being the case at Royal Mandarin.
So there it is. Over-salted crunchy batter, dust-stormed in MSG with a bland chicken center. Ship these casualties back to their homeland!


Since the start of Wing War 2010, several questions/issues have shot my way via Twitter, FaceBook, email, telegraph, smoke signal, etc. Following is some overdue Q&A.

Q: ‘Wings’ mean BUFFALO WINGS! How come you aren’t eating a lot of Buffalo Wings?
A: Too narrow of a scope. If I limited Wing War to the Buffalo, New York region of the United States, the showdown would be between a couple dozen places that use Frank’s RedHot schnause. Since chicken wings are a universal snack food across many, many cultures, I decided to wage a Wing World War instead. It just so happens that it’s turning out quite flavorfully thanks to Asia, and no thanks at all to Buffalo.
Q: So you’re done with Buffalo wings?
A: No, asshole. In fact, I’ve recruited a former (just outside of) Buffalo New Yorker to help me judge what are supposedly the ‘closest’ interpretation at The Tilted Stick in Ocean Beach.
Q: Asia seems to be dominating. What’s up with their recipes?
A: All I can say is they just taste better. It's probably the MSG.
Q: Have you found any GOOD wings in San Diego?
A: This is Wing War, not Wing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Yes, there are good ones out there, but so far the battle’s been brutal. Out of 8 wing varieties sampled, my reining favorites are Golden Chopsticks salt and pepper wings, and the spicy garlic wings at OB Noodle House. That’s all I’m revealing for now.
Q: Where are you headed next?
A: Searsucker, Yakitori YakyudoriThe Tilted Stick, Vo’s, and a couple others.
Q: Why no love for Hamilton’s Tavern?
A: I went to Hamilton’s over the weekend and had 2 wing varieties, actually. Both were good, but not memorable. It didn’t help that the girl who took my order was a Grade-A snatch, and made ME feel like a dumbass for asking what ‘beer candy’ wings were. Confusing menu items and bitchy staff apparently go hand-in-hand here, and because this chick couldn’t take 1 minute to chat with me about the deets, when the order arrived it didn’t meet the lacking description she gave. At this point in Wing War, I’m only interested in judging superior tasting wings that meet a list of criteria.
Don’t agree with any of the above? Have more questions? @reply me on Twitter and enter the Wing War.

This sissy couldn’t stand the heat that was The Royal Mandarin Massacre.


Finally, America. Finally! Until now, homeland wings have crashed in comparison to those of Asian origins. So when I heard rumblings that URBN Pizza had finally opened its doors last week, and that the coal-fired chicken wings were a ‘must try,’ I was eager to give the ‘ole U-S-of-A a chance to turn the bus around.
On Tuesday, URBN Pizza was nothing but an un-opened business. By Wednesday, they served up these coal-fired wings:The Dark Horse contender in Wing War 2010.

URBN’s wings are the first roasted variety I’ve encountered in Wing War, and they soared. Marinaded in a light sauce that’s sweet and spicy with earthy rosemary, caramelized-sugary-burnt-bits infuse each bite with smokey, coal-fired flavor. The preparation and presentation are practical, and effective; wingettes and drummettes roasted in a mini cast-iron skillet with marrowy juices bursting from the bone penetrate the meat with rich, chickeny flavor.  More goodness lies, of course, at the bottom of the skillet where fatty juices have picked up flavor as they drip down the marinated wing skins; for added pleasure, I suggest dragging your drummettes along this greasy and delightful pan.
This wouldn’t be Wing War without Beef:
I was shocked that wings of this caliber emerged from a kitchen in its second day of operation. Because Wing War crimes have been known to happen, I decided to pay a second visit to URBN the following night for another round of the wings I so fondly recalled. Despite their deliciousness, the wings were quite salty in comparison, and there were no wingettes included. However disappointing these 2 beefs were, the wings were so fantastic the first time around, that I’m giving URBN the benefit of opening week jitters. A third and final attack will take place in the coming weeks, just to make sure the wings were served as intended the first time around, and not the salty second.

Listen. They’re chicken wings, not golden nuggets.
At Kahn’s Cave in Kearney Mesa, wing prices are what I’d expect from farm-to-table wings (the next closest thing to pure golden nuggets so we’re told). The meat on these bones was far from farm fresh and hardly meaty.
$9 for 6 scrawny, albeit tastily seasoned wings.
The ‘sriracha thai chilli tossed’ variety proved you can add that brilliant, fiery table sauce to anything dead and it’d taste better. God bless Sriracha; these wings would be dogmeat without it.
‘Peppery fried wings,’ I gathered, are an attempt at the salt and pepper fried variety that became an early Wing War favorite from Golden Chopsticks in National City. The flavor was good, but again the dark, stringy meat on Chicken Little’s bones wasn’t flattered by its coating; rather, the whole wing came together as ‘meh.’ Toppings. I’m a fucking tyrant when it comes to disjointed wing components. Suffice it to say, I politely discarded of the onions and bell peppers under the table. These are chicken wings, not an Italian sausage sandwich. 

When an establishment unilaterally decides they have ‘the best wings in San Diego’ they can be sure I’ll pay a visit, putting my sharpest taste buds forward to disprove such a lofty, unfounded claim. South Park Abbey was no exception to this rule. To add insult to pre-judgement, the Abbey talks some shit of their own on their website: ‘Do we have the best chicken wings in San Diego? Maybe it depends. If you like tender, yet crispy wings that are served up in a variety of flavors that would challenge any Iron Chef, then yes, we got some chicken wings for you. ’
‘Nuff said. After reading this filth by a restaurant and bar that’s been open just a few months, I showed up ready to go Morimoto on someone’s ass.
First things first: it was hard to give stink eye to the bartender as he asked what charity I’d like part of my wing bill to benefit. Then he moved on to describe the ‘Buffalo wings’ as having a ‘Franks RedHot Sauce base’ and the war face was back on! This battle isn’t about the kids! It’s about curing San Diego from its serious, far-reaching affliction with this wretched hot sauce!
Despite my feelings about Frank’s, I went with the bartender’s recommendation  for the 2 most popular wing varieties: the Buffalo and the Sweet and Spicy. I was about to order 2 complete orders, but was warned of the large amounts of meat I was about to encounter. I laugh in the face of bulky meat, but took the recommendation to split one order with both styles anyway. Thank you. Seriously.
South Park Abbey slow-smokes their wings and then fries them to order before coating with your choice of BBQ, Asian, Apricot Chipotle, Sweet & Spicy, Buffalo, Hot, or ‘Tough Guy’ sauces. Wing War hasn’t seen any smoked wings, and boy do I consider these a sneak attack after all.
I tore into a Sweet and Spicy wing with the voracity of a starving beast; its sticky-sweet, sriracha-based sauce covered the crunchy skin that protected soft, smoky chicken flesh like a coat of armor. The pure, unscathed meat was absolutely succulent, juicy, and fall-off-the-bone delightful. The smokiness worked so well with the sauce, I came close to saying ‘these are the most harmonious tasting wings in the battle thus far,’ but I literally couldn’t stop smacking my teeth long enough to utter a word.
The Buffalo variety, despite their evil red sauce ‘base,’ exceeded most of the ‘hot wings’ I’ve tried so far. My biggest beef here was that the strong, smoky flavor of the meat didn’t quite work with the vinegary hot sauce. My taste buds couldn’t focus on either strong flavor, however, there was no denying the spruced-up Buffalo sauce was better than I thought it would be. And, the skins weren’t as crispy as the Sweet and Spicy, whose sauce was more of a ‘glaze.’ Nonetheless, I wasn’t gnawing at flesh and bones like the deplorable Dirty Birds wings I tried early in Wing War. The meat at South Park Abbey was almost melting in my mouth.
And so, ladies and gents, we have an exception to the overwhelming evidence that suggests ‘hype’ is the nastiest seasoning of all (besides Frank’s) in battle Wing War. I’m naming South Park Abbey’s Sweet and Spicy slow-smoked wings one of the top 3 contenders alongside URBN and Golden Chopsticks. 3 neighborhoods, 3 different styles and preparations, all duking it out for number one. Who will soar to the top? I’ve still gotta work my way through the other sauces available at South Park Abbey, and in the meantime, so should you.

Two days after penning one of the most complimentary Wing War entries to date, the phone rang at Fort Granite. On the line, an exasperated reader informed me that South Park Abbey republished ‘Raising the White Flag’ to their website’s blog.
‘What’s the big fucking deal?’ I barked. ‘I don’t have time for this nonsense.’
‘Well, G, your name isn’t on it. No mention of even. Take a look, sir.’
Sure enough, my minion was right.
As pissed as any victim of their own war ought to be, I forced myself to take some deep breaths. Strategize. Why not go bananas? Because I loved those fucking sweet and spicy wings at the Abbey. I want to eat them again, and perhaps crown them winners of Wing War??!!???
I sent an email to the copyright infringers, politely requesting that they link back to my blog, and most important, put my fucking name next to my life’s work. After checking the site incessantly over the next few days, I finally called. Again, as polite as a tyrant could be, I asked that my name appear on the blog, plus a hyperlink.
‘There is a hyperlink on the blog,’ Bozo said.
‘Um, where?’
‘The photo is linked.’
Sure enough, when I clicked on my NON-CREDITED PHOTOGRAPH, I was routed to One tiny fucking problem in your fantasy land, pin-head: Who the fuck knows to click on the photograph?
Brains McGee said he’d be sure to fix these problems, and said goodbye.
3 weeks later, more unanswered emails, and still no credit for lil’ ole me… My patience is running out. Wing War gets tens of thousands of hits every day, and not ONE has been a referral from the Abbey’s website.
I’ve got news for you, law breakers, and any other thick-skulled dissenters out there: this is Wing War, not a La Jolla Mommies Tweet-Up. Act right! Cite your source or take down the fucking review!
You look like foolish creepos. There’s a review on your home page, with no name on it, or context for which it was written, with several 'fuck' words scattered throughout. My only solace is that you people look like ignorant thieves on your own site. For the last time, rectify this situation or your wings shall be condemned henceforth!
Note to concerned readers and/or the shriveled nut-sacks at South Park Abbey: I’m not ruling the Abbey out of Wing War– yet. I will back down once my requests have been met, and I’m fed some complimentary wings for worrying my pretty little head over this. Too much to ask? We’ll have to wait and see...


On grand opening night, I paid a visit to Knotty Barrel Gastropub on 9th and Market in the former abhorrent Wolfy’s Place restaurant. As a serious food writer, I’d never think about reviewing a place just hours after it opened to the public. As an evil war-starter out to document my search for San Diego’s best chicken wings, rules and reservations obviously don’t apply. If I have to beat you over the head with it, I’ll gladly oblige: there’s only one jerk in Wing War. You know who.

The three of us looked over the large paper menus. “Jamaican jerk wings,” a certain someone taunted from across the table. Nooooo!

Like a Werewolf trying to ignore the full moon, I diverted my eyes to the Bison Burger, and then the mac and cheese. I was feeling vulnerable; expecting a quiet dinner with friends, I didn’t want to launch into battle. Just as I started to claw at my own skin, the server approached.

“My favorite app by far,” he crooned, “are the chicken wings!”A passionate declaration indeed, I anticipated he’d finish off in table-top song and dance. Instead he said, “They’re the best.”

Unless you’ve been sleeping through Wing War, you know that nothing beguiles my inner tyrant quite like the word “best” in reference to wings that I haven’t tried. Thank God he didn’t add “in the city” to his judgement, because the very infrastructure of this newly rennovated space would crumble like a cheap cookie. “We’ll have one of those,” I half ordered, half howled.

It was too late. Wings are my kryptonite! Already frothing at the mouth, I looked around the new restaurant for more calamitous inspiration. It didn’t take long before I noticed writing on a chalk board, because that’s like, what legit craft beer bars do these days: “Gastropub- a public house that serves high quality food.” I recognized the definition, because I, too, looked up the word when gastropubs were first fresh and cool 5 years ago. Congratulations for joining the fucking club!

When the wings hit our table, I already had my teeth out. Yet another Knotty Barrel wing enthusiast was on hand to give a play-by-play of their preparation, likely seeking my approval because yet another one of my dining companions blabbed and pointed “wing connoisseur” shortly after the order was placed. They never learn.

The chicken wings are brined along with Jamaican Jerk spices for 24 hours, baked, and then flash fried. Like South Park Abbey’s exceptional wings, the twice cooked variety at Knotty Barrel were extremely juicy and tender with crispy, sweet skins. There was no mistaking the consistency of these wings for anything short of a proper brining, and the cooking technique was on, too… but, there just wasn’t anything that jerky about them.

Jamaican Jerk chicken is the Island equivalent of American BBQ'd chicken. Its zesty to-the-max, charred-on-the-grill meat is penetrated by cloves, all spice, nutmeg, garlic and hot ass peppers. But these wings lacked kick, were quite bland actually, and I didn’t have to perform the standard jerk cleanup of licking and sucking my fingers like a savage beast.

A bit of unfriendly advice to Knotty Barrel: research “Jerk” just like you did “gastropub” on the internet, and you will find photos of charred, saucey, herby chicken, and me.

If this war was about French Fries, Knotty Barrel’s would be tough to beat. But that’s not the fucking point now, is it?


Last month I reported my struggles with a certain bar and restaurant that republished my work to their website without citing credit. In the grand scheme of things, having a piece of un-cited work floating around the internet isn’t life or death, which is why I didn’t bother pursuing legal action, despite copyright infringement and the annoyance of it all. Instead, after several failed attempts to get the offenders to comply, I chose to take my fight to the internet for some good ‘ole fashioned heckling, in the hopes that embarrassing these donkeys would lead to some fucking recognition. Once the word got out, several outraged Says Granite readers @-replied the business on Twitter, and even wrote emails on my behalf to the owners. This continued throughout the month of March, until finally, my name appeared next to my work, as it should have been to begin with. Please accept my sincerest gratitude for your support!

As a semi-jaded, recovering journalism-junkie, I felt obligated to chronicle the experience of having my work ripped off via Twitter, Facebook, and right here on Says Granite. Our digital reality is such that content– and hoards of it– is largely available for free, and although I don’t ‘blog’ for a ‘living’, I work hard to provide my readers an alternative perspective to the food, beer and lifestyle stories reported everywhere else. Yes, my content is free, but that doesn’t mean it’s valueless, so if you like what you see, please take it. Just provide a name and link!
To end, I encourage content producers to install a copyright widget on their blogs or websites.  Oh, and thank you South Park Abbey, for taking 60 seconds to rectify the situation almost 6 weeks after my initial complaint. Now I can come back in and eat those delicious chicken wings again.

From San Diego CityBeat's Best-of 2011 issue

Best wings, hands down

Not to start an East Coast-West Coast war or anything, but hot wings as Buffalonians invented them are a bore. Their signature, one-dimensional blast of vinegary hot sauce and drab cooking technique do little to sex up the chicken’s flesh and skin to the effect of “Dirty” wings from South Park Abbey (1946 fern St.)—a more radical and flavorful interpretation of America’s favorite bar food, with some original influences that I can get behind.

Chef Justin North is an admitted wing fanatic offering the only hickory-smoked variety in town; already plump and flavorful wings then take a brief dip in the fryer, crisping skin before it meets one of 10 original sauces. The most enticing wings—dirty style—are coated in a threeway of Buffalo, sweet-and-spicy Asian and ranch sauces for a fierce flavor-texture combo. Charred, smoky skin crunches over meat that mingles with a taste of hot wing here, unmistakable ranch over there and the sweet tang of chili throughout. Happy-hour prices run all day Monday and Tuesday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. when guests plow through orders of the most arousing San Diego-born wings ($7), washed down with a $1.50 local beer. - by Amy T. Granite