Flip-Flop and Fly: Some things improve with age. Like St. Louis Wing Co.

Dec 1, 2011 at 4:00 am
The Caribbean Jerk wings.
The Caribbean Jerk wings. Kholood Eid

A few months after St. Louis Wing Co. opened in Rock Hill this past spring, I stopped by to see what was up. I sampled wings in two of the restaurant's sauces, "Spicy Fresh Jalapeño" and "Coconut Curry." I was unimpressed. The sauces lacked punch — the jalapeño was oddly sweet rather than spicy, the coconut-curry bland. Worse, the wings were soggy on the outside. In a post on Gut Check, Riverfront Times' food blog, I got a little snippy, opining that, at the very least, a restaurant specializing in one specific preparation ought to be able to get that one thing right.

I attributed the sogginess to a coating of batter that hadn't been fried long enough. That was a mistake on my part, and chef/owner Bobby Tessler ripped me a new one for it in the comments thread beneath the post. And I had it coming: At the very least, a food critic reviewing a restaurant that specializes in one specific preparation ought to know how it's made.

So: my bad. Didn't change my opinion of the wings I'd eaten, though.

Then, a few weeks back, a Gut Check contributor — a writer who doesn't dole out praise unless it has been earned — extolled the glories of St. Louis Wing Co.'s wings. I knew I had to go back.

Yeah, I owed it to Tessler. But frankly, I also love wings. Unabashedly. Worst-case scenario, I'd endure another soggy slog and move on — a risk well worth taking, given the upside potential.

St. Louis Wing Co. is located in a Rock Hill strip mall on Manchester Road. Its name suggests a chain — you know, à la Saint Louis Bread Co., or St. Louis Pizza and Wings — but it's a stand-alone operation. The décor is spare: rolls of paper towels on the tables, a giant painting of the restaurant's logo (which features a chicken and the Arch) on one white wall.

Ordering is fast-casual style. You can split your order of wings among two, three or four flavors, depending on how many you order (though you have to order 50 or more to get four different flavors). A combo meal with ten wings in your choice of two flavors, with French fries, a dipping sauce (ranch or blue cheese) and a soft drink is a very good value at ten bucks.

When I went back to the Wing Co., I ordered the same combo that had let me down the first time around.

And, um, wow.

The outsides were fried crisp. No one would mistake the skin of these wings for soggy breading or batter. The curry flavor in the coconut-curry sauce was more prominent than before, almost to a fault; a little more sweet coconut would temper the spice blend's bite. The jalapeño sauce has shed the jarring, buttery sweetness that had brought it down on my earlier visit, and now it spikes the chicken's natural flavor with a mild but lingering heat.

The coconut-curry and jalapeño are but two of St. Louis Wing Co.'s dozen regular flavors. In addition to those, the wingery trots out special flavors; I noted four over the course of my recent visits. Those sheer numbers set the place apart from the typical wing-joint formula of hot-hotter-hottest, with maybe a couple of "mild" options thrown in.

The Wing Co.'s "hot" sauces bring some heat, but they don't scorch. "Traditional Hot" wings are as tangy and rich as they are spicy, balancing a cayenne-based sauce with a generous quantity of butter. A pineapple-habanero preparation could have done with a dash more chile to counter the fruit. That said, the kitchen will happily crank up the heat upon request, and devotees of esophagus immolation can partake of the restaurant's wing-eating contest, where the sauce is made with ghost peppers, the capsaicin equivalent of the hydrogen bomb.

"Toasted Garlic Parmesan" wings don't bring the slightest lick of heat, and they're better for it. The sauce is a velvety garlic butter, with parsley, bits of toasted garlic and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. That the menu specifies Parmigiano-Reggiano rather than the generic Parmesan reflects Bobby Tessler's roots in higher-end dining, including a stint as executive chef at Wildflower in the Central West End. In that same vein, the "Fresh Herb Walnut Pesto" wings succeed thanks to a bright basil note underscored by toasted walnut.

Side dishes include freshly cut French fries, which are good. (I thought they could have used a hit of salt, but there wasn't any on the tables.) There are also sweet-potato fries, which by themselves are about the same as what you find just about everywhere else in town but elevated several notches by a dip in the tangy jerk-chile mayo that accompanies them. "Fried Macaroni Wedges" look uncannily like Chicken McNuggets. The exterior (battered, I swear!) yields to a center that consists of elbow macaroni and melted processed cheese.

When you get right down to it, the only chink in St. Louis Wing Co.'s armor is its lack of a liquor license.

Wings but no beer? Sacre bleu cheese!