Lately I’ve been really into hot wings.
Until Saturday, my favorites were served at The Peanut — a chain of KC-area bars famous for BLTS and its giant, spicy wings — and Bon Bon, a new-ish Lawrence bistro that serves amazing sweet and sticky Thai-style wings.
Then I went to El Pollo Rey, 901 Kansas Ave. in Kansas City, Kan. It’s a tiny Mexican cafe with counter service and just two items on the menu: chargrilled chicken and Buffalo wings. On Saturday afternoon, I ordered a half chicken ($6.75), an order of wings ($6.50) and a bottle of Jarritos grapefruit soda to split with my husband.
As we waited — the order took about five minutes to make — a cook behind the counter flipped whole butterflied chickens on a wood-fired grill until they were crispy and charred on the outside. A vent carried most of the smoke up through a chimney. It’s no wonder you can smell the intoxicating aroma of charred chicken as you drive down Kansas Avenue.
When our feast was ready, we grabbed a seat on the sunny patio and unwrapped the hot foil packet of wings, which marinated in a pool of bright orange sauce. The chicken was still sizzling from the grill, but we risked burning our fingers for a taste. It was tender and juicy with the perfect hit of heat. The flour tortillas served on the side were perfect for dipping in the hot sauce.
It took about 30 seconds for us to give up on eating neatly. I skipped the utensils and started tearing into the grilled chicken with my hands, tearing off charred bits to wrap in tortillas with pinto beans, salsa, rice and the delicious marinated red onions El Pollo Rey serves in zipped plastic bags.
The grilled chicken reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago to Mexico’s Riviera Maya. On an adventure excursion that involved cave snorkeling and ziplines, our guide took us to a tent in the jungle where cooks grilled chicken over smoldering charcoal and served it up with salsa and tortillas. That simple, rustic meal was one of my favorite vacation memories.
As I built mini burritos at El Pollo Rey — a name that translates to The Chicken King — my husband plowed through wing after wing. I didn’t count, but I think there were eight in all, and he ate most of them.
“These are the best wings I’ve ever had,” he said.
When things got a little too spicy, a cold sip of Jarritos soda balanced things out. By the end of the meal, I understood why most of the other customers ordered extra-tall bottles of Mexican Coke with their meals — and why so many of El Pollo Rey’s customers become loyal regulars. All hail the king.