New Haven may be king when it comes to burgers and pizza, but we’re sadly lacking in another great American staple: the buffalo chicken wing. Yorkside offers a decent rendition, but their tenders are better. The wings at TK’s are cheap and available in dozens of flavors, but they’re also small and stringy. I have eaten a lot of buffalo chicken wings in my life, and the wing place in my home town was a favorite high school hangout. But buffalo wings have joined sweet tea and barbecue on my list of favorite foods only available back home in South Carolina.
So I was thrilled when S’wings: Smokin’ Wings opened its doors on the corner of High and Crown, offering wings in a small but interesting array of flavors. And they deliver. Late. Has the perfect buffalo wing come to New Haven? Can we now boast another culinary “best of?” Are buffalo wings the new black?
No. S’wings’ wings are perfectly all right, but nothing more. Some flavors are better than others, and some are downright bad. The apostrophe-crazed menu is short but varied, and the available non-wing items are just as hit-and-miss. S’wings is a great place for late on a Friday night when you just can’t stand another slice of pizza, but a food revolution it is not.
Flavor aside, the wings themselves are passable at best. They’re sizable, meaty and gristle-free, but the skin lacks the necessary crunch. A few of my orders included unidentifiable chicken bits not associated with the wing (necks? knuckles? knees?), and, while I’m not put off by eating unusual parts of animals, some Yalies may be. Wings come in orders of six, 12, 25, 50 or 100 ($4.95, $8.95, $17.45, $29.95 and $49.95, respectively), and the larger the order, the more flavors you can include.
So how are the flavors? My favorite is honey barbecue, certainly not a ground-breaking innovation. This flavor is good take on an old favorite — sweet and spicy, but the sauce could stand a little more heat. Heat, in fact is one of S’wings’ main problems. The only sauce variety I sampled that offered any was chipotle, another good mix of sweet and spicy, this one with the distinctive flavor of smoked peppers and the perfect amount of kick. The rest were sweetish without the essential balancing zing.
The whiskey and cherry cola varieties are also pretty good. Whiskey has the same oaky, smoky flavor of a good whiskey, which is a surprisingly decent match for the chicken. Cherry cola is super-sweet and sticky, but a hint of jalapeno makes it tolerable. Both should be hotter.
The clear losers: steer clear of “s’campies,” or “garlic.” I love garlic, but these wings were less garlicky than greasy. Mango habanero is just plain gross and tastes like someone dipped your wings in jelly.
I did not try the unappealing, unnecessary and unpronounceable “S’hrimp,” which are available in the same flavors as the wings, but they do provide an interesting alternative for you pescetarians out there. They are also offered in a wrap.
“S’andwiches” are also available — a chicken breast in the sauce of your choice with lettuce and tomato on a ciabatta roll. The sandwiches are good but small, and come either a la carte ($6.95) or in a platter with “s’law” and fries ($8.95). The slaw is actually the best thing at the restaurant. A colorful mix of cabbages dressed in a fruity, vinegary, peppery sauce, it’s available as a side for $1.95, and it’s worth it. The fries? Meh.
Wings and sandwiches come with your choice of sauce — ranch, blue cheese or salsa blanco. Ranch and blue cheese are pretty standard, but salsa blanco — a garlicky sour cream dressing — is spectacular on wings, a sandwich, celery or a spoon.
The rest of the menu is a blatant attempt to get their money’s worth out of the deep-fryer. Fresh plantain chips ($1.95) struck me as a peculiar complement to wings — even more peculiar when they turned out to be dry and tasteless. The fried Twinkie ($2.50) is delicious, but frying a Twinkie and covering it in chocolate sauce is a pretty foolproof endeavor. There are also mozzarella sticks ($5.95) and — your guess is as good as mine — “veggie sticks” ($2.25). Twinkie excepted, you’re better off with the wings.
S’wings is a disappointment, but not a catastrophe. The wings are decent and would probably seem excellent at 2:30 in the morning, but the food is nothing to write home about. Unless, that is, you’re writing to make plans to go out for wings when you get back.
New Haven will just have to wait for the perfect wing; S’wings is just plain s’atisfactory.