It can be easy to forget that a chicken wing does, in fact, originate on the body of a chicken. Does anyone still call them chicken wings? They are wings or hot wings or Buffalo wings or that other thing for which Hooters is known. The chicken is irrelevant; it's a vehicle for the sauce. Naked, even, wings taste of frying oil and salt, not meat.
I've always liked wings. They're a fun bar snack (if a bit messy), great paired with a cold lager. But they're never revelatory. To be perfectly frank, the classic Buffalo sauce has never really done much for me: too light on the heat, too heavy on the vinegar.
O! Wing Plus might not have launched the wing into the upper tacosphere of my favorite dishes, but this unassuming Overland restaurant left me with a new respect for this simple dish — and a go-to spot when a craving strikes.
O! Wing Plus (which, try as you might, you won't be able to pronounce without adding an S to the end of "Wing") opened this past fall in a Page Avenue strip mall, with a Subway and a Mexican restaurant among its neighbors. The interior is bright and colorful, though the décor is relatively spare. It looks like a restaurant assembled from a box, but it isn't a chain; it's an independent, stand-alone operation owned by one family, the Songs.
There are classic Buffalo wings here, the sauce as red as a femme fatale's lipstick; the kick's more pungent than is typical, and if you can't bring yourself to deviate from the norm, you'll be happy as a clam. But what makes O! Wing Plus so appealing is the range of its sauces, several of which bear the influence of Korean and Southeast Asian cuisine.
The indecisive or the timid can take comfort in knowing that with an order of ten wings, you can choose two different flavors to try. (The format is fast-casual; your food will be ready in five to ten minutes.) As is standard wing operating (flapping?) procedure, you get a mix of the middle wing joint and the so-called drumette. Both are on the plump side — if they were any bigger, you might wonder how the chicken from which they came kept from tipping over.
(Which, come to think of it, is likely why we don't call them chicken wings anymore. Also: Considering how many wings America consumes, what happens to all the wing tips?)
The house sauce, "O's Original," coats the wings with caramelized brown sugar spiked with red pepper flakes. The effect is subtle, the sweetness gradually giving way to a mild but lingering heat. This menu describes "O's Original" as tangy, but if we take Buffalo sauce as the baseline for tangy, then I didn't find it tangy at all — which is a good thing, because I much prefer the interplay of the rich, caramel sweetness and the heat from the chiles.
The menu color-codes its list of sauces, from hottest (dark red) to mildest (yellow). "O's Original" is in the middle, just above the Buffalo sauce. Immediately above the "O's Original" is "Thai Chile-Lime," and the increase in heat is unmistakable. These "Thai" wings are served with a thick slice of lime on the side, but you don't need to squeeze it for the promised lime favor. It's in the sauce, a bright note that (momentarily) masks the punch of the chiles.
At the very top of the heat heap is the awesomely named "Beast Mode," a blistering concoction that will leave your tongue and lips burning long after you've left the restaurant. It might not be the hottest sauce you've ever encountered — I would guess it employs habanero and/or Scotch bonnet peppers, but probably not the fearsome ghost pepper — but capsaicin freaks will sit up and take notice.
As tends to happen at the far end of the Scoville-unit chart, however, heat overwhelms flavor. For the best balance of spice and taste, try the "Hot Mama" wings, one step down from "Beast Mode." The heat is considerable but leavened by a thick, sweet (but not too sweet) honey-based sauce.
The mild half of the O! Wing menu features standard flavors like teriyaki, barbecue and honey mustard. The garlic-Parmesan wings feature one of the best menu descriptions I've ever read: "Garlic and Parmesan are the heroes in this sauce, fighting hungry stomachs everywhere." The wings, though, don't live up to the hype. The sauce is bland, reminiscent of the salad dressing often touted as "Caesar" in restaurants and supermarkets.
Those who enjoy the sauces that coat wings but not the mess and effort involved in eating them can order boneless strips of fried chicken tossed in the sauce of their choice. I hesitate to even mention this capitulation, because people who don't like wings shouldn't darken a wing joint's door, but the customer is always right, blah blah blah.
O! Wing does branch out beyond its namesake fare. There are wraps featuring chicken or — another nod to Korean cuisine — bulgolgi-style beef. An order of fried chicken brings a plump breast, leg and thigh (and a side) for the more-than-reasonable price of $5.99. The chicken is fried to order — the employee who takes your order will inform you that this will take fifteen minutes — and delicious, the batter crisp, with just the right touch of salt and grease.
Really, the only thing standing between O! Wing and wing-joint perfection is beer. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof. (You can get your wings to go, of course.) But such niggling misses the point. O! Wing has taken the chicken wing — a bland fast-food commodity — and transformed it into a blank canvas for flavors from Korea, Thailand and Buffalo, a fusion far more legit than what too many restaurants persist in purveying as "fusion cuisine."
In an odd way, in this second decade of the new century, O! Wing Plus might be the most truly "American" restaurant I've visited.
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