The surreal experience in my last column sent me in search of buffalo wing normalcy. The truth is that I am a buffalo wing diehard.
My annual birthday request for years was full-sized drumsticks tossed in buffalo sauce. In the mid-2000s I would drag my parents to Chili’s when the happy hour menu featured 25-cent wings. And when I returned to college in my late 20s I opted for self-care via a trip to Buffalo Wild Wings once a week after my 10 p.m. night class let out.
I am no chicken wing elitist. The charm of wings is their simplicity, and the fact that everyone has looked like a ravenous beast trying to get the last bits of meat hanging off a tiny drumstick. They are the bright orange equalizers of the culinary world
I have said it across many columns, but it bears repeating: The sheer volume of distinct and divergent takes on the same dish that the Pasadena area offers is awe-inspiring. So, of course, I had to see just how much the chicken wing concept could be shaken up.
Hot Wings Cafe, a small local chain with storefronts in Pasadena, Glendale and Los Angeles, serves up wings and beer in the most traditional “wings-and-beer” way you would imagine, while Blazin’ Hot Chicken in La Crescenta serves up buffalo sliders and boneless strips.
Hot Wings Cafe is a throwback homage to the days of Pop Warner end-of-season banquets where cloudy plastic pitchers of Coors Light sat half-empty at the table with the coaches and parents. The players ran around with fingers stained orange and sticky from buffalo sauce and every television in the house was playing a different sporting event on sequential ESPN channels. Their menus are plain in tri-fold plastic shells in what I am sure was a precautionary measure to the buffalo fingers and beer spills. The walls are lined in neon beer signs, flat screen televisions and professional team banners spanning the world of sports.
HWC serves beer, wine and their menu offers sandwiches, salads, burgers and some pretty solid appetizers at bargain prices. Their wings (boneless or traditional) come in three buffalo sauce heat levels: mild, hot, and extra hot. There are also some less buffalo varieties: BBQ, spicy BBQ and the flavor I simply cannot get behind — lemon pepper.
For appetizers, my companion and I ordered the fried zucchini ($6.50) and buffalo chips ($3.50). The fried zucchinis were served hot with a side of ranch, and they were enjoyable. But truthfully, it is difficult to mess up deep-fried vegetables. The breading complemented the zucchini with a saltiness and texture it needed. The real MVP of the trip though was the basket of thinly sliced and freshly made buffalo chips. I long for the month-long LA County Fair where I can get a basket of handmade potato chips for five times the price I paid at HWC, so stumbling upon those flavorful, guilt-inducing, cannot-bring-myself-to-stop-eating thin slices of potato heaven for less than five bucks brought a gluttonous tear to my eye. I don’t watch sports very often, but I may start so I have an excuse to head into HWC and sit with a basket of buffalo chips in front of me for an extended period of time.
For an entree, I got the 12-piece order of traditional wings ($10.85) tossed in their hot sauce. I was here for the wings, right? Even for me, HWC’s hot was plenty bearable. While I didn’t count my wings, I am pretty sure I got a few more than 12, but I am definitely not complaining. My companion tried one of the offerings under the “tasty sandwiches” header, which sends a bit of a mixed message when there is a separate list of sandwiches elsewhere on the menu. Are those not also tasty sandwiches? Nevertheless the spicy chicken works ($9.90) was a behemoth in a basket with a French roll covered in grilled chicken breast chunks, bell peppers, sautéed mushrooms, tomatoes and melted provolone cheese. The sandwich was massive and if it were going size for price I would say it was a value. Though the menu purports the chicken breast is “marinated in our own spices” maybe this proves the myth that marinating imparts flavor. But most if not all of the flavor in the sandwich is from the bell peppers and provolone.
Hot Wings Cafe is on Colorado Boulevard, just across from Crossroads Trading Co, in Old Pasadena, and a stone’s throw from three sushi restaurants. Its presence fills a void in Old Town where there is nowhere quite as stripped down and comfortable to just hang out.
Blazin’ Hot Chicken is what happens when someone grows up with a love of both spice and flavor. I bit into my first strip and was hit by some real buffalo magic. The dry seasoned crispy exterior gives way to bright and tender white meat. There is a balance in the trio of components that comprise wings should hit and, to be honest, I did not know it until my first bite at Blazin’ Hot. First, the heat should accentuate rather than overtake the entire experience. At least with the mild and the hot I tried it did not. Although, if you climb any further up their heat hierarchy, I cannot say. Next, the flavor of the buffalo seasoning needs to offer more in terms of flavor than a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot, which is achieved here by the use of dry-rub spices that add texture and a depth of flavor. Despite my pleading with the chef I could not get him to tell me what top-secret blend of spices made up the flavorful combo. Finally, most importantly and most easily forgotten is that the chicken itself is not just a vessel for spice. It requires its own TLC.
The menu at Blazin’ Hot is small. There are three combo options of which you can order your preferred level of spice based on their five-tier spice meter. The meter spans from no spice, mild, medium, hot and x- hot to the bring-tears-to-your-eyes — blazin’. The first combo ($12.95) comes with two chicken tender sliders on buttery buns with kale slaw and their signature “comeback” sauce and fries. The comeback sauce is the BHC alternative to ranch, or as they put it, “You’ll forget about ranch.” What exactly is in their comeback sauce is once again a mystery, but I’ve got to hand it to them. At no point did I wish I had ranch. Combo two ($10.95) comes with two tenders and fries atop a slice of white bread with sliced pickles and of course, the comeback sauce. Combo 3 ($11.95) is the hybrid with one slider and one tender. Calling them “sliders” is a bit of an undersell when their actual size is more akin to that of an In-N-Out cheeseburger. You can mix and match your seasonings when you order any combos, which is good for anyone who cannot handle the same spice level as their dining partner but wants to split a combo or two. For anyone hoping to go ala carte, individual tenders can be purchased for $3.50 and sliders for $5.50.
Both Hot Wings Cafe and Blazin’ Hot Chicken offer a great chicken wing option in a decidedly relaxed setting. Either would be appropriate for enjoying the warmer days of spring with (HWC) or without (BHC) some beers and a couple friends.
Blazin’ Hot Chicken
2660 Honolulu Ave., La Crescenta-Montrose’
Hot Wings Café
89 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
314 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
7011 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
Major Cards Accepted/Beer and Wine