Until recently, it's been rough going for Buffalo-wing lovers in Little Rock.
The last time we took a survey of the wing scene, about a year and a half ago, we found three restaurants that didn't quite live up to expectations. In the interim, a downtown joint called 801 Wings had time to open shop and then close for good. It was enough to conclude that Little Rock will never be a wing town.
Happily, that conclusion was premature. Since January of this year, two new restaurants devoted to wings — Mista Wings and All American Wings — have opened downtown. Along with Chicken Wangs Cafe, an established, off-the-beaten-path joint we recently discovered, the new restaurants allow us to report that wings have arrived in Little Rock. All three are certainly among the best wing places we've tried here. Only Chicken King in North Little Rock gives them a run for their money.
Don't be fooled — none of these competes with the wings in our one-time home of Buffalo. But after an adjustment period during which we adhered to very strict Buffalo-derived standards for our wings, we've come to begrudgingly accept regional variants. For example, Little Rock seems to believe that wings should be served with ranch dressing rather than blue cheese. This is a sin against nature as far as we're concerned, but one we're willing to swallow if we can swallow some fine, greasy chicken meat at the same time.
Still, a good chicken wing will have certain characteristics that cannot be disputed. We hereby present the Three Commandments of Good Buffalo Wings, whether they're prepared in Buffalo or Timbuktu:
I. They shalt be large.
II. They shalt be of a moderate crispiness.
III. They shalt be well-sauced.
So how do our three new restaurants live up to the Three Commandments? Very well — though none quite achieves the trifecta.
Chicken Wangs Cafe first. This is a little place a ways out on Colonel Glenn Road that has limited seating and ridiculously late hours — until 1 a.m. on Saturday and 2 a.m. on Friday. Its strength is size; though not of an overwhelming girth, the wings are quite large. We ordered two flavors, barbecue and spicy, which we were told was the hottest. The spicy turned out to essentially be miniature fried chicken dusted in a hot powder. The meat was quite greasy and not what springs to mind when you think of Buffalo wings, though that's not to say it was bad. The barbecue was somewhat disappointing. Its texture was slightly reminiscent of a fried Chinese dish. Still, we left the restaurant satisfied. Other flavors we neglected include regular, lemon, pepper, garlic pepper, honey mustard and Buffalo, which we were told was more akin to the wing we know and love than the spicy.
A couple of complaints make Chicken Wangs Cafe the bronze medalist in this roundup. The restaurant did not offer blue cheese even as a special order, as the other two restaurants do, a real shock to the system. More importantly, it offers the lowest bang for your buck. Six wings, no sides included, will cost you five or six dollars depending on flavor. A six-piece dinner, which comes with two sides, offers a better deal at $7.
With Mista Wings and All American Wings opening within months and blocks of each other, Little Rock may be in for a Buffalo-wing battle royale downtown.
Mista Wings debuted a couple of months ago in the old Starving Artist Cafe space on Seventh Street. (The Starving Artist sign still hangs on the building.) After a futile foray during a snowstorm that found the restaurant closed earlier than advertised, we weren't disappointed when we finally got our Mista wings. Size was robust. Sauce was amazing. For a real spicy punch, try the Mista Mista sauce. The barbecue was excellent, with a pleasant twinge of sweetness, while the teriyaki delivered on the typical tang, but also added an extra note of sweetness — maybe honey? (We were unable to try several other flavors.) Our only complaint was texture, which totally lacked crispiness. Value was high — 32 wings set us back only $20.
We thought we couldn't be happier with the downtown wing situation until All American Wings opened in the cavernous old Downtown Music space just days before deadline. By chance, we found it open for a soft opening. That initial trip offered us the best wings we had eaten in Little Rock. The wings must have come from some sort of mutant beast chicken. The crispiness was just right. The barbecue sauce was a little weak, but the pepper, the spiciest, brought the heat.
Unfortunately the food didn't live up to that first meal when we went for a return trip early the next week, on the restaurant's second official day. The wings had wilted down to a normal size. The crispness was still there, but several of the flavors we got — lemon pepper and Cajun — suggested we should have stuck with the pepper. The hot sauce was good, but the Cajun had the same fried-chicken texture that caused us consternation at Chicken Wangs Cafe.
Unlike the other two restaurants, which offer fish and sandwiches as well as wings, the focus at All American Wings is entirely on the chicken. Except for several sides and a few salads, it's wings or strips only. Value is high here, too: wing-only orders are cheap, and $8 will get you seven wings, a large side, a drink and a piece of cornbread.
In short, All American Wings is sure to be a strong option for wing lovers. And despite the absurdity of its motto — “The Best Wings in America” — if it can repeat its soft opening performance it promises to become something even more — a place for truly great Buffalo wings. Mista Wings has clearly worked to perfect its sauce and is already an excellent choice. And Chicken Wangs Cafe is no slouch either, a good late-night option if you're out in the UALR area.
Now if they'd only learn that wings should be served with blue cheese and celery…
All American Wings
215 W Capitol Ave.
Most promising of the bunch, but erratic so far in its young life. Try the spicy and the hot.
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. Catering and delivery.
Chicken Wangs Cafe
8320 Colonel Glenn Road
Good-sized wings, but more expensive than other options. Spicy has a fried-chicken texture.
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday; 12 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards accepted.
416 W 7th St.
King of sauce, with nine different options. Barbecue, teriyaki and Mista Mista are especially recommended.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. Delivery in downtown area for orders over $20.
Maybe they're owned by a Chik-Fil-A devotee. Or Hobby Lobby. But I just called and…