Today we’re gonna talk about a very successful locally owned chicken wing restaurant and the current reigning champ for fried chicken in our metropolis (as well as top of the chart for most other “Southern” foods).
Happy Wings recently opened a restaurant on Stockdale Highway in the Albertsons/Trader Joe’s shopping center in what was last home to a Papa Murphy’s, moving from its former California/Chester Avenue location. Happy Wings is following a great formula for success: mimic Wing Stop. Wing Stop is a national chain that opened its original Bakersfield store at the corner of White Lane and Gosford Highway and has, as of late, continued to spread around the city at a fertile pace. In fact, a new one may have opened in the time it took to read this sentence.
What they do is simple: They make chicken wings to order, nothing prepared in advance, then toss them in a sauce and present them. The wings are fried naked, without batter, so the skin crisps up nicely.
Happy Wings pretty much follows that formula, so we had the same 10-minute wait after ordering to get our food. While they may have fewer sauces, the choices are good, particularly the mango habanero, which combines two great sweet and hot flavors to get past the standard Tabasco/Frank’s heat. The fries here, unlike Wing Stop, are not fresh-cut but they do offer spicy battered waffle fries that are particularly winning. And we ordered one of the combo meals, a double ($19.95) that featured 20 wings, choice of up to two sauces, and a side (potato wedges, coleslaw, potato salad and regular fries are also offered). If you get a drink, you can use the Pepsi version of the popular Coke Freestyle combo machine. I haven’t seen many of those around. There’s also a cool Bob Marley mural on the wall near the cash register, and vertical paper towel holders on all the booths and tables.
While Happy Wings is great for a fast-food fried chicken experience, the current best source is still J’s Place in Rosedale. Last year the chef/owner Ray Ingram was slain — a portrait of him hangs in the lobby — but the restaurant has not lost a beat since then. It does follow one of the most important principals in this type of food: cooked to order. For example, we visited on a typically crowded Friday night and it took 45 minutes to get our food, but patience is always rewarded at J’s Place.
What makes the chicken so good? There’s a video flying around the internet on the website First We Feast with an interview of the owner of Charles’ Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem, in which he details all the specific steps you need to take to make decent fried chicken. I have not been in the J’s Place kitchen, but I’d bet they follow those steps.
On our visit, I ordered the three wings and a waffle ($10.95), while my companion selected the absolute best offering on the menu, the “Surf and Cluckers” ($18.95). That dinner comes with two side dishes (she chose chili beans and a side salad), two fish strips (either snapper or catfish), five fried shrimp and two pieces of fried chicken. In the past I’ve raved about those shrimp that radio host Scott Cox tipped me off to years ago (they’re available in a basket that is a similar, if more limited, feast) and what makes them so great is the simple cornmeal coating and, as with all the food here, properly drained and toweled fried fare that is not at all greasy. My companion went for the catfish and could not resist. She chose a wing and breast for her chicken and they presented her with a large deboned breast and a crispy, hot, moist inside chicken wing that was identical to what I received. Frankly fried foods aren’t her first preference, but the food here was so good she was won over, at least for one night. And the shrimp are a perfect example — I prefer my shrimp grilled instead of fried unless they come from J’s Place, which makes perfect fried shrimp.
Now my chicken and waffles calls to mind the famous Roscoe’s in L.A., though my companion wondered about the caliber of the waffle here. It’s wimpy, not crisp, but that’s on a par with Roscoe’s to accommodate all those customers who strip the chicken from the bones, use the waffle as a taco shell and dig in. Don’t knock it till you try it. I prefer to treat my waffle as dessert.
One warning: A few weeks ago we had written about how congested the parking lot was at Cowboy Chicken, and the J’s Place lot, due to the addition of Studio Movie Grill, I’m guessing, is similarly packed. We parked far away, over by Freddie’s, and took a long walk to the restaurant. There’s a popular gym, that movie theater and a lot of restaurants in this shopping center.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.