Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Snow and chicken wings. I took them both for granted growing up in Buffalo, New York.
Leaving behind the white stuff was easy. But living without bars and restaurants that serve genuine Buffalo wings still pains me after all these years.
Typically, there are three things wing joints outside of my hometown consistently get wrong: The appendages aren’t cooked long enough to develop a firm crisp; the blue cheese dip is weak (or sacrilegiously swapped out for ranch dressing); and bowls are never provided for the discarded bones.
Wings Empire was guilty of only the latter charge, though with a disclaimer regarding the first offense since I had requested the wings extra-crispy — and received them as such.
This small countywide chain has a feather in La Mesa and grabbed my attention with its bold signage when driving along east El Cajon Boulevard. Located close to the street in Mesa Plaza, the atmosphere resembles a tavern, sans an actual bar.
Bottled beer is on display at the order counter in refrigerated coolers. Beer banners frame a sizable outdoor patio. And ’80s rock music played loudly over a decent speaker system on two different midday visits.
Service lacked each time as the same employee left me and others waiting impatiently at an empty front counter for nearly 10 minutes before emerging from the back. While taking orders, she was glued to her cell phone and would frequently disappear again.
When I inquired about the ownership, she aloofly replied, “I think it’s owned by a bunch of people that know each other, but I’m not sure.”
I received slightly better answers when calling the Pacific Beach and El Cajon locations. Apparently “some” of the seven outlets are franchised, while the others are operated by the original owner from the Chula Vista location. “He” wasn’t available when I called, yet according to most employees I spoke with, the eatery was founded about four or five years ago.
Mysteries aside, everything I ate at Wings Empire was very good. New to the lengthy lineup of sauce choices is sweet chili, a clingy and somewhat spicy recipe made supposedly in-house. I tried it on an order of wings and also asked for some on the side to jazz up one of the best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve had all year.
Nary a shred of gristle existed in the pile of incredibly tender house-roasted pork, which was topped with fresh coleslaw and tucked inside a wide sesame seed bun (the same roll used for the tasty half-pound Angus burgers). I especially liked the absence of barbecue sauce in the meat, which had no particular seasoning — just pure pork flavor elevated by my sparse applications of the sweet chili sauce.
Thick barbecue sauce, however, is slathered onto the ribs — an unlikely offering in a place that appears on the surface to be all about chicken wings. Based on their sight and smell, and the rapturous groans from a near party chewing into them, I expect they’ll go down with hyper speed when I return to order them.
“Buffalo chicken stixs” is a curious item that grabbed me. Similar to flatbread, it features battered, fried pieces of chicken breast tossed in your choice of sauce, and then lopped onto an elongated house-made bread roll. A mantle of melted mozzarella seals the deal. Priced at $7.99, it’s a substantial dish that I almost loved had I not chosen the pungent lemon-pepper sauce.
For a five-count order of wings, the bright-orange Buffalo sauce I requested was considerably better. It seemed properly laced with butter — not just the watery cayenne stuff other places use. Though ideally, wings are shaken in the sauce for an even coating. These were given a liberal pour-over.
Other flavors include teriyaki, honey BBQ, mango-habanero and garlic-Parmesan. And for masochists, there are “very hot” or “Empire hot” versions of the Buffalo sauce.
Overall, the menu has a mixed identity that falls somewhere in between wing joint and barbecue house. Add to the equation items such as wraps, flautas and loaded french fries, and you’re not really sure where to start. Yet based on initially flapping through the place, I’ve pretty much lucked out.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.