I have had a love/hate relationship with chicken wings for many years now, in part because the popularity of the bar snack that rose to fame in the 1980s in Buffalo, N.Y., has given rise to a cheaper and cheaper product.
The result of this is a less enjoyable wing experience at a number of places, especially when it comes to larger chains or places that just don’t care much about the quality of the chicken they serve. And so I am on a constant search for what I consider to be really enjoyable chicken wings.
And thanks to a recent happy accident, I discovered some at River City Drafthouse, a cozy Highlands spot I had only been to once or twice for a pint or three.
The charred wings there are created with some house-made signature sauces that help make them, well, unique. In other words, this isn’t a one-sauce obsession with Frank’s and butter, it’s a focus on doing something different than the rest of the pack.
Mission accomplished, River City Drafthouse.
I stumbled upon the wings at LIBA’s Louisville Brewfest back in September. I wasn’t particularly hungry that day, and then I saw what was going on: roasted wings made with a variety of sauces with interesting names like Gorilla Warfare and Bourbon Bacon. I also noticed one option of peanut butter and jelly. What the?
I tried a few flavors there, but vowed to go to the pub as soon as I could to get the full experience (at the Brewfest, the wings were understandably being served from foil pans, kept warm by burners). When I finally found the time to make my visit, it included yet another happy accident: Wingsday.
Normally, wings at River City are $7 for a half dozen and $12 for a dozen, but on Wednesdays after 7 p.m., the price is 55 cents apiece. The rules are, no fewer than six per flavor, but after the first six, you can buy in quantities of three (so 9, 12, 15, etc., for that flavor).
So, with the price being so right, I decided to make a pig of myself, ordering six with Spicy BBQ, six with River City Sauce, six with Gorilla Warfare, and six with no sauce whatsoever, as sort of a control group. My girlfriend Cynthia, who isn’t a big fan of eating animal flesh off bones, ordered some beer cheese as well as an order of fried okra.
I started with a couple of no-sauce wings — these are actually enjoyable just as they are, with just plenty of crispy chair coating decidedly bright meat. The wings can get a little on the dry side, but aside from a few rough edges here and there, I could eat the plain ones all day with a good brew. (In this case, my choice was West Sixth IPA, which worked nicely.)
I next went to the Spicy BBQ, a blend of straight barbecue with the standard hot flavor, which morphs into a fairly traditional, tangy red sauce with a nice kick. The heat isn’t too prevalent, but if your palate doesn’t like the spice, I’d say the straight barbecue version on the menu would be fine and dandy. The sauce offers only a hint of sweetness, with a touch of smoke.
Then came the River City Sauce, which is where things began to get interesting. This one is a sauce that blends garlic with chiles, turning it into its own thing, and the fiery orange color it gives the wings looks so tantalizing against the black char, it was tough not to tackle these first.
The kick here is relatively assertive, but the flavor owns the day, with garlic ever present but not dominant. These were my favorites of the meal.
However, the Gorilla Warfare may have been the most interesting, with a mixture of banana, Caribbean spice and ghost peppers making it vaguely like a Jamaican jerk sauce, but with its own profile.
If you like a healthy dose of allspice, you’ll like these wings, and while they are indeed on the fiery side — I was blowing smoke by wing No. 4 — the upshot is the heat isn’t unpleasant. As in, none of the sauces is hot for hot’s sake; the spice is a key element in the flavor profile.
I wasn’t able to finish all 24 wings, but I made a pretty good dent in the mini-buffet I had ordered. It did impress Cynthia to some degree.
“It’s getting Medieval in here,” she said at one point as the bones piled up.
I also had a sample of the Bourbon and Bacon, which I’d tried at Brewfest, and again, I couldn’t detect the bacon in the flavor. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a terrible thing, as the smoky bourbon glaze is delicious on its own, but I did notice.
In addition, the special sauces of the month (Peanut Butter and Jelly was last month, so I whiffed on that one) for October are Slutty Pumpkin, a pumpkin spice blend, and Ghost of the Headless Horseman, which is a version of the former with ghost peppers added.
I tried a sample of the latter, and the truth is I hate pumpkin spice anything. But if that’s your thing, and you like a little heat, do try the Ghost of the Headless Horseman.
All in all, a good experience, and right up there with other favorites in town like Barret Bar and Momma’s Mustard, Pickles and BBQ. Fresh quality chicken, cooked so that the wings don’t turn into slippery grease bombs with tendons snapping and hanging everywhere? Count me in every time.
And if wings don’t do it for you, Cynthia raved about the fresh fried okra, which came with a flavorful southwest aioli. She also enjoyed the beer cheese, which was served warm, only moderately spicy and nicely paired with pita triangles. River City also has burgers, sandwiches and a couple of salads, along with plenty of pub-grub appetizers.
But really, try the wings.
River City Drafthouse, 1574 Bardstown Road, is open Tuesday through Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight; Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.