Consider the chicken wing.
It is a blank canvas, a cultural Rorschach test. Nearly every culture in the world sees itself reflected in the possibilities; no matter who you are or where you come from, there is a style and preparation of chicken wings that feels like home. Here in Portland, entrepreneurs from across the United States and around the world are expressing distinct cuisines and culinary traditions through the lens of the humble wing. Take Erica’s Soul Food, whose founder, Erica Montgomery, has become a Portland food star thanks in part to her outstanding Atlanta-style lemon pepper wings, which Portland Monthly dubbed the city’s best in 2021.
But her cart is just the start. From deep fried sweet-hot Chicago style to charred tandoori wings with a side of chutney to achingly authentic Buffalo barroom style to the wings you’d find in all-night pubs of Seoul, Portland is home to a panoply of chicken wing interpolations, a veritable winged migration of flavors and textures. So vast is our wing tableau that it’s spawned a rolling tribute: @pdxwingguys, a dedicated Instagram account run by wing-obsessed Western New York expats whose endless love for the perfect bird has no limit. “This is an amazing place for wings,” they tell me. “You just gotta know where to look.”
In advance of the coming Super Bowl (America’s holy day of wing consumption), here’s a ten-piece selection of some of the Portland area’s very best chicken wings, informed by the work of fellow travelers @pdxwingguys and my own adventures across the region. Long may our wing scene fly.
Founding chef Doug Adams departed Bullard Tavern in late 2021, but the Texas-style smoked wings he developed for the restaurant’s opening menu in 2018 remain some of the city’s best. A kiss of wood smoke, a spicy-sweet habanero glaze, an herby and creamy house ranch for dipping, and those pickles, an iconic side to Texas barbecue—together, it is far greater than the sum of its parts. Wings here are served whole, so there will be some napkins required; rip the chicken, dip the chicken, then have a bite of pickle, maybe a sip of Topo Chico or Shiner Bock beer, and repeat. 813 SW Alder St
As the city waits patiently for Naoko Tamura to reopen her stunningly beautiful Kengo Kuma-designed dining room, Shizuku, the chef’s to-go bento service has become an extended pandemic mainstay for discerning Portlanders. Tucked away on the daily list of bento boxes and pressed sushi platters are Chef Naoko’s chicken wings, which are grilled, not fried, tossed in the chef’s own delicate teriyaki glaze, and finished with sesame seeds. “This chicken wing is Chef’s favorite Tokyo flavor,” the menu states. “Good with beer!” This may be the understatement of the decade. I dream of these chicken wings, yearn for them, not only for the quality of the flavors and textures, but also for the transportive qualities they possess. It’s no secret that for many years Chef Naoko has supplied Delta Airlines first class bento boxes for its direct flights between PDX and Tokyo Narita International Airport. Travel restrictions are still in place between the two countries, but no such restrictions apply to eating chicken wings from Chef Naoko. Like everything Tamura does, these wings are executed with an uncommonly deft touch. 1237 SW Jefferson St
Beaverton’s Chettinad Cuisine opened into the teeth of the pandemic in early 2020 with very little in the way of fanfare or hype. That should change; inside this charming pink dining room, beneath televisions playing Bollywood pop videos, you will find some of the very best Indian cuisine in the Pacific Northwest. Chettinad’s Tandoori wings land glowing red, subtly charred from time spent in the tandoor grill, lovingly marinated in yogurt and spices and served atop shredded onions. Give the lemons a squeeze, dunk the wings in the side of green chutney, repeat, then order more from Chettinad’s outstanding menu of Tamil Nadu regional favorites and pan-Indian classics. 14125 SW Walker Rd, Beaverton
Deep in Happy Valley is a little cart tucked away in the Happy Valley Station food cart pods. Here chef and owner Christina Goodall offers a cheffy take on the chicken wing format, serving up plump blades and drumettes with a range of cart-made sauces to make your head spin: Alabama white barbecue, cilantro garlic, maple horseradish, spicy peanut, Coca-Cola BBQ, and many more. Goodall’s plates show up colorful, kaleidoscopic, breaking boundaries and inventing new forms with each mash-up hybrid basket. The spicy peanut is particularly outstanding—I adore peanut sauce wings—as is the neon green cilantro garlic, which ends up being ordered by nearly every visitor to the cart for the Instagram likes alone. If Christina’s Cartel were in the city proper, people would be out in the street shouting about it as a Portland food destination. Instead, it is a quiet gem tucked away in Happy Valley, and so very worth the drive. 13551 SE 145th Avenue, Happy Valley
A Portland chicken wing institution, one might argue it would be impossible to write a Portland wing guide without including Fire on the Mountain, the city’s foremost local wing mini-chain. But here’s the truth: I mention them not out of any sense of duty or obligation, but because the wings here are dependably good, predictably tasty, and speak to the working class functional roots of the foodstuff itself. Not every wing joint needs to be flashy, or a discovery, or a revelation: sometimes you just want some wings, you know? What FOTM does really well are the sauces, in particular the rotating monthly sauce special—most recently a spicy honey mustard, yum yum—and in the repeatability of the product and experience at the company’s three locations. A predictable wing order is nothing to scoff at; in this topsy-turvy world, I’d argue wings you can set your watch to double as a form of municipal therapy. The inclusive vegan wing option here—soy chicken around a sugarcane bone—is especially good, as are the sweet potato fries. Multiple locations
You can’t help but root for LoRell’s Chicken Shack, a deeply felt love letter to the chicken wing traditions of Chicago. Windy City transplant Darrell Preston—an affable and friendly face at the cart counter—has essentially opened up a culinary wormhole between the Carts on Foster pod and Chicago’s Southside. Here at LoRell’s, the wings are breaded and fried crispy, then drizzled (not tossed) in a tangy sweet-hot sauce, and dusted gently with golden tangy wing dust. They should be consumed immediately at one of the pod’s picnic tables, so as to maximize the marvelous dichotomy between the crispy-crunchy fry, flavorful breading, zippy zingy hot-sweet sauce and golden flavor powder. I’m not a french fry person, but the fries served along each wing basket here are also excellent, hand cut and irregular in the best way, perfect for sopping up a bit of that sauce. If you love breaded, fried wings, these are the city’s best, full stop. 5205 SE Foster Rd
A charming little food cart in the heart of downtown Portland, Mama Chow’s offers a unique take on the lollipop wing, dressed in a subtly-sweet glaze inspired by Chinese street food and served alongside your choice of rice or garlic noodles. (You want the garlic noodles.) The wings—plump, crispy, flavorful—are served alongside sautéed greens, confit shallots and spicy chili crisp, making for a little tableau of flavors and textures. As is often the case with good food carts downtown—even in these cursed times—this place is busy each day come lunchtime. Your brief patience will be rewarded. 300 SW 2nd Ave
Sandy Hot Wings Café
Credit to the @PDXwingguys for putting this on my radar—without their advocacy I might not have journeyed to just this side of the Gresham-Portland border for what might be the city’s very best wings, period. Inside an unassuming family-owned teriyaki deli on Sandy and 139th there is a little miracle taking place each day (except Sunday) between the hours of 10 a.m. and 9 p.m.: perfectly crispy, dry-fried, unbreaded wings tossed in sauces from mild to hot, teriyaki, lemon pepper, and parmesan. They aren’t reinventing the wheel at Sandy Hot Wings Café, but the execution on these wings is flawless, served with homemade chunky blue cheese and carrot sticks for dipping. There is a moment that happens at the bottom of a mixed 10 piece—half teriyaki, half spicy buffalo—where the teriyaki sauce blends with the Frank’s Red Hot, co-mingling in a single bite of cross-cultural wing exchange, recalling my childhood spent haunting Korean-owned delis and Vietnamese bakeries across the Pacific Northwest. It is the promise of America. 13912 NE Sandy Blvd, Portland, 503-252-7827
A slice of Buffalo in Montavilla, Tinker Tavern is maybe my favorite bar to open in Portland in the last two years. I deeply appreciate a bar that knows itself: this is a beer-and-shots football bar, serving bottomless endless longneck Labatt Blue lager and the agony and ecstasy of Buffalo Bills football, plus Blazers games and a rocking good chicken finger marinara sub. With this much connection to Western New York, you know the wings have to be good. Plump but not huge, spicy but not nuclear, sauced in the traditional concoction of Frank’s Red Hot and margarine, served with house blue cheese and carrots and celery as a sauce vessel between bites. They’ll serve a hundred baskets or more of these during a single football game, and for good reason: there’s nowhere else quite like it in Portland. 7980 SE Stark St
1st Street Pocha
The city of Seoul is home to its own distinct chicken wing style: centered around wings crispy fried in a starch, then tossed in either sweet-sticky soy glaze or tangy red sauce made with gochujang chili paste and served alongside crisp pickled radish. Portland boasts several restaurants specializing in this style of wing, none better than 1ST Street Pocha, a new-ish late-night Korean pub in downtown Beaverton, in the former location of Du Kuh Bee. Order both styles of wings—they bounce off each other remarkably well, each bite of the sweet soy leading back to the spicy gochujang—and drink some imported Korean beer or makgeolli alongside the chicken. Everything here is perfect, all the better for the glowing evening city vibes in thriving downtown Beaverton. I am already plotting my next visit. 12590 SW 1st Street, Beaverton, (503) 567-1322