By Frank Sabatini Jr.
There’s more to Dirty Birds than chicken wings. Although a steady flap has persisted for its sauced appendages ever since the locally owned eatery debuted in Pacific Beach 11 years ago.
At the College Area location alone, which opened in 2015, the kitchen cranks out nearly 12,000 wings per week, according to regional director of training, Michael Feldman. The company’s other outposts in Liberty Station, Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach do almost as well.
With more than two dozen flatscreens, a full bar, and a lengthy menu that includes 40 flavors of wings, plus burgers, tacos and other booze-friendly grub — the El Cajon Boulevard location is a magnet for SDSU students and neighborhood residents alike.
Dirty Birds’ wings come out remarkably fast. That’s because they are pre-baked and then flash-fried to order. They’re adequately crispy, although not like those in my native Buffalo, New York, where they often cast audible crunches when biting into them. But that requires a robust sizzle in the deep fryer for about 15 minutes — and patrons who are willing to wait. Here, if you want them extra-crispy, just ask.
Dropping in for lunch as a twosome at this roomy location, we ordered 15 wings. (They’re sold in multiples of five, 10 and 20). We had them equally divided into three flavors.
The “dirty ranch” is basically Buffalo sauce toned down by ranch dressing. It’s perfect for those whose palates and sinuses feel assaulted by the classic cayenne-vinegar base of Buffalo hot sauce. We found it too safe.
My companion was drawn to the “Bangkawk BBQ” wings, which offered a deep chili flavor and semi-spicy edge fueled likely by some type of mustard. A glass of cold Coronado Orange Avenue Wit from the taps proved an ideal match.
But it was the apple-bourbon-chipotle wings that stole my heart. The sauce tasted concurrently tangy, sweet and spicy — less viscous on the tongue and highly lickable off the fingers.
In visits to the other locations, I’ve gravitated mostly to traditional Buffalo wings, although I’ve sometimes added into the mix five wings coated in diablo sauce. Vibrant red in color, it’s made with three types of chilies and tastes a notch above “medium” in heat level.
It wasn’t until this recent visit that I supplemented my wing intake with a couple of other noshes. We shared the honey-mustard chicken salad, which offered a substantial amount of romaine lettuce and modest measures of smokey bacon crumbles, shredded cheese, and grilled chicken strips. The house-made dressing gave equal play to the honey and the mustard.
The most curious item on the menu (and a top seller) is the “fried cheese cheeseburger.” Feldman said that co-owner Adam Jacoby put it on the menu as a nod to his New England roots.
Invented supposedly in Connecticut, it involves a griddled hamburger christened with a floppy square of fried cheese — in this case American cheese that is blackened on the bottom and just past melted on the top. Most of it protrudes from the bun in all directions. It’s fun, kooky and quite tasty.
Other menu items include burgers in classic, turkey and Beyond Meat form. There’s also assorted sliders, sandwiches and tacos, and a few desserts such as the “dirty delight” involving a house-made brownie capped with ice cream, fudge sauce and crushed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Happy hour rings in some decent price breaks. Held from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays (all day on Tuesdays), wings and select pitchers of beer are half-price. Or for those who can polish off a chicken coop’s worth of wings, Mondays herald unlimited wing consumption for $15.99 per person.
The success of Dirty Birds has allowed the ownership to give back to the community on several fronts, including sending 75 young cancer patients from Rady Children’s Hospital to Disneyland each year. In addition, proceeds from certain highlighted menu items go to organizations such as The Big Josh Foundation (www.bigjoshfoundation.org) and Sombfab (facebook.com/sombfab/).
6499 El Cajon Blvd. (Rolando)
Prices: Salads and appetizers, $5.95 to $14.95; burgers and sandwiches, $11.95 to $14.95; tacos (two per order), $12.95; chicken wings, $7.95 (five pieces) to $27.95 (20 pieces)
— 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. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.