Everyone’s favorite dive bar food is growing up, no longer just the fluorescent orange bits of mystery meat with a side of limp celery and carrots. And though we still love those (pass the blue cheese, please), we can’t help but get excited about all these fancier versions that L.A. chefs and restaurants are now serving. Chicken wings have become a canvas for all kinds of spicy, tangy, umami-laden flavor. These places are worth visiting for the wings alone. Just make sure to ask for extra napkins.
With the lively atmosphere that comes with dozens of vintage '80s arcade games, Button Mash could easily get away with serving mediocre food. But thanks to Starry Kitchen team Nguyen and Thi Tran, the food is worth a visit even for nongamers. The double fried chicken wings are no exception. Available in three varieties — tamarind, "tangy" or ginger — the plump, juicy, fall-off-the-bone wings come slathered in sauce, sprinkled with chopped cilantro and plated next to a pile of house-pickled mustard greens. Which, it turns out, are the perfect thing to eat with fried chicken wings. A beer from Button Mash’s impressive list pairs well, too.
1391 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park. (213) 250-9903, buttonmashla.com.
These crunchy delights are a wonder of Southeast Asian fusion cookery: caramel/fish sauce chicken wings. If you don't mind a little sweet with your savory (which is one of the glories of Filipino cooking), there's a good chance you'll be over the moon for these.
13355 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 855-1706, ramenroomla.com.
“Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings,” according to the menu, are Pok Pok’s “signature dish.” After tasting them, it’s obvious why. They are the first thing listed under “Drinking Food” at Andy Ricker’s Chinatown L.A. outpost of his original Portland, Oregon, Thai restaurant. Thanks to Portland employee Ich (Ike) Truong, some menu items have Vietnamese influences, and the chicken wings are one of them. Six whole, pungent wings arrive piled on a large oval plate next to a salad of pickled cabbage, daikon, cucumbers and carrots. The wings have been marinated in fish sauce and sugar, then deep-fried and caramelized in Vietnamese Phu Quoc fish sauce and garlic. We recommend ordering them in the spicy version, as it is actually pretty mild. If you had to choose only one place to eat chicken wings, it should be Pok Pok.
978 N. Broadway, Chinatown. (213) 613-1831, pokpokla.com.
This Valley "Japanese soul food" restaurant has a wide and varied menu, but one of the surprising highlights is the plate of deep-fried chicken wings. These Day-Glo orange suckers come with ginger, chili and minced garlic in the mix, and a lemon wedge in case things aren't tangy enough for you.
11288 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 980-8450.
Kyochon is an international Korean chicken wing chain. There’s only one in Los Angeles, so going to the Koreatown strip-mall location still feels special. Two delivery cars are parked outside with “Chicken on Board” signs affixed to their roofs. Painted on the window is a list of promises that make you question the fast-food nature of Kyochon: “No MSG,” “Never Frozen,” “Natural Seasonings,” “Trans fat free canola oil.” Despite all of this, the menu reads a lot like a fast food restaurant’s. For a place that serves only chicken, there are too many choices: honey wings, whole chickens, combos, the “Boneless Series” of “Chicken Pops.” It would be overwhelming if it weren’t for the friendly cashier who explains that the most popular wing is the soy garlic because most people can’t handle the spicy one. It's a shame, because the hot “Red Wings” are the best. (They will let you sample it if you’re unsure.) The smallest order of wings is 12 pieces for $11.99; additional sauces such as honey mustard, ranch and chipotle mayo are an additional 50 cents each. 3833 W. Sixth St., Koreatown. (213) 739-9292..
Good Girl Dinette
Highland Park’s neighborhood Vietnamese spot offers chicken wings that have been smothered in a caramelized ginger and garlic-lime glaze. They’re available mild or spicy. It’s worth ordering them spicy, as they’re plated atop a bed of a very hot green jalapeño salsa, allowing the diner to control the amount of heat ingested.
110 N. Avenue 56, Highland Park. (323) 257-8980, goodgirldinette.com.
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“How are you with spicy food?” the server at chef Josef Centeno’s Ledlow might ask when you order the Szechuan chicken wings. The six-piece plate of wings comes tossed with handfuls of arbol chilies yet somehow manages to be just the right amount of spicy. The saucy, sesame-dusted wings are covered in chopped cilantro, and during Ledlow’s early and late happy hours are available for just $5.
400 S. Main St., downtown. (213) 687-7015, ledlowla.com.
Ye Rustic Inn
Even dive bars now offer "vegetarian-fed" chicken wings with a variety of options. Ye Rustic Inn, the old-school watering hole in a Los Feliz strip mall, provides four levels of spiciness for its "world-famous wings." Decide if you're in the mood for mild, medium, hot or "suicide" and if you want your wings regular, crispy or extra crispy. In any case, they will come drenched in that bright red, vinegary Buffalo sauce everyone loves, with ranch or blue cheese dressing for dipping and a side of celery and carrot sticks. Sometimes you gotta stick with the classics.
831 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz. (323) 662-5757, yerusticinn.com.