Voracious diners these days have few inhibitions: They'll dig in roasted bones for marrow, suck the guts out of shrimp heads, and crunch down on whole fried smelt with abandon. But one of my favorite nibbly bits in the animal kingdom is sadly underrepresented in today's restaurant world. Too mundane to be considered exotic, too much of a hassle for most kitchens and eaters, the chicken wing's crunchy, cartilaginous tip is historically discarded in favor of its meatier counterparts. This could be changing. Since both chicken wings and nose-to-tail dining are trending on Bay Area menus, a handful of places are starting to serve the whole chicken wing, much to my delight.
I grew up in a family of chicken enthusiasts, bone-cleaners the lot of us — when we're done with a piece, every edible bit of meat and skin and marrow has been methodically stripped off. My love affair with the chicken wing began at an early age. It's the perfect piece if you want a bit of everything. The drumette has meat to sink your teeth into. The middle part, known in the industry as the "flat," has more skin and fat. The tip, also known as the "flapper," brings the crunch. With the flapper, many see a piece only fit for the stock pot or the trash bin, but they'll never know the deep satisfaction of gnawing on a craggy roasted or fried wing tip — especially that nubby part that sticks out near the joint — and getting a bite of taut skin and grease-saturated cartilage.
I'm not alone in my passion for the part. "If I'm eating wings, I feel like I'm getting robbed if I don't get the wing tip," says John Thurmond of The Other Guys, a newish S.F. pop-up that serves some of the best chicken wings I've had in the past year. "If you're eating all the odds and ends [of an animal], the crunchy and chewy parts are always the best." Thurmond and his fellow pop-up mates, Nathan Holden and Stephen Thorlton, par-bake, fry, and serve their wings whole, mostly because, as Thurmond explains, the wings "eat the best" when the whole unit has been preserved; he's noticed that the parts tend to shrink more in the fryer when they've been severed. And their wings' crisp skin and moist meat speak to the attention that has been put into it.
With their occasional chicken wing pop-up, The Other Guys are tapping into the zeitgeist. Wings have been appearing on the menus of almost every new Bay Area restaurant, no matter the cuisine or the price. So many of this year's major restaurant openings have a spin on wings on the menu: Monsieur Benjamin, Trou Normand, Red Dog, Palm House, Chino, Dirty Habit, and Kin Khao, to name a few. Many of them are exploring new frontiers in sauce and preparation, but not with the very structure of the chicken wing itself.
For some, like David Bazirgan of Dirty Habit and Joe Hargrave of Chino, the choice to not serve tips is personal preference. For others, like Tim Acheleuta at ICHI sushi, the preferred cooking method makes the tips difficult (ICHI's meaty yuzu wings are tenderized with sous vide which makes the tips rubbery). For Christian Ciscle of Lower Haight's Wing Wings, which turns out more than a thousand wings on a busy Saturday during football season, serving the tips is neither practical nor holds much interest. His goal is to serve American-style wings, which means drumette and flat only. Though the National Chicken Council estimates that Americans will eat about 27 billion wing portions in 2014, the U.S. ships most of its wing tips to Asian countries like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Kin Khao is one of the few new places serving the whole wing. At the upscale Thai restaurant with a focus on serving more authentic cuisine than neighborhood takeout joints, the whole wing preparation doesn't seem out of place, nor is it a challenge for diners seeking out the restaurant in search of something new. Kin Khao's "pretty hot wings" come with a traffic cone-orange sauce made from Sriracha and tamarind, and are elegantly plated, transcending their humble origins as bar food.
Philosophy, rather than flavor or tradition, is the reason that Chef Robin Song of Mission restaurant Hog & Rocks started serving salt-and-pepper whole wings in January 2013 instead of just the drumette and flat. Throwing away the tips goes against his whole-animal ethos. His kitchen breaks down whole pigs, lambs, and chickens on the regular, and the chef didn't see the point in devoting labor to excise a perfectly edible piece. Then again, the menu at Hog & Rocks has things like pork "trotter tots" and bone marrow served with blueberry and dill; like Kin Khao, it's safe to say that diners there are looking to go beyond their comfort zone.
And that may be the crux of it: You need to be comfortable with getting your hands dirty when you eat the whole wing. There's nothing dainty about it, and for those who aren't inclined to suck, gnaw, and tease out every bit of flavor from their food, eating the whole chicken wing can seem like more work than reward. But Wing Wings' Ciscle, who has watched amazed as the chicken wing trend spread through the city, can see wing tips finding a niche in San Francisco. "Everyone's a little more adventurous now," he says. "It's a rite of passage these days to eat something that looks prehistoric."