Suffice it to say I’m pretty lucky. Lucky that I’ve managed to find a group of people who are so willing to lay the groundwork and scout locations, lucky that people always show up ready to eat, and lucky that the great has outweighed the bad in my quest for wings thus far. Michael David, frequent contributor and member of the WingSquad managed to find a place that he went to, not once but twice, and encouraged me to check it out for the wreview. Not only that, but he chose to eat their wings unsullied by sauce in order to prep himself for the forthcoming wreview, so that he would have no predispositions. Unfortunate as it may be, circumstances misaligned and he was unable to attend this week’s wreview of…
Duke’s Original Roadhouse
1596 Second Avenue (Upper East Side)
A motley crew assembled this time around, with Tamar Entis dragging an unwitting Josh G into the mix, as well as our constant companions James Zhang, Janna Cisterino, and Liz Babish.
On stepping in, the first thing I noted was the mid-to-late-90’s rock/pop soundtrack, something that will always make me feel welcome. The interior is split into two rooms, both made entirely of brick and wood, with the entrance being the bar itself; the second being an off-shoot dining room with self-serve beer taps (I didn’t realize that’s what they were, because you KNOW I would’ve hit those up) and walls plastered in an endless array of album covers. If you were ever to ask yourself “What would happen if my regular neon-lit dive spot got a bigger space, served food, and got a little bit of a cash influx?” then I can tell you with some certainty that it would look like Duke’s.
The word ‘Roadhouse’ informs a lot of what they do here. Fried seafoods, pulled pork, bbq chicken, ribs, sliders, burgers, a dizzying array of toppings specifically for mac and cheese, Duke’s is a little bit all over the map trying to make sure that if it’s something you’d find at a barbecue somewhere, then they have it here. To top it all off they also serve “Big Ass Drinks,” and on the weekends they even have quite an interesting brunch menu. “Let’s go easy on the different sauces” said I in my naiveté while perusing the wing section. “I feel like I’ve gone a little overboard on sauces lately.”
The wings come in singles and doubles here, meaning ten or twenty. This sets the PPW at $1.10-1.05 which is not a bad price, especially being on the UES.
What We Ordered
“Yeah right,” my brain (and group) replied, as we ordered twenty Buffalo, and ten each of the Sweet-N-Sour, Teriyaki, Roadhouse BBQ, and XXX. Also, they totally let you split sauces on double orders. A few of us had drinks, mostly beers, but whatever signature drink TE ordered also came with a spear of gummy worms and a necklace of Mardi Gras beads, which I think is worth the inflated cocktail pricing.
Three large platters were brought out to the table, each with carrots and celery, both blue cheese and ranch, and stacks of wings all on top of a plain wax paper. We had plenty of app plates to go around (at first, anyways) and while not a ton of napkins, enough to do the job. No frills no thrills, just wings on wings on wings. 3/5.
“Sweet… smokey flavor” TE chimed in, adding that “some of the sauce is blackened which gives it a nice flavor.” JG simply said they were “delicious.” JZ on the other hand found them “bland” and lacking sauce, calling them “sweet” and “underwhelming.” Thoughts were definitely mixed on these, with some noting them among their favorites and others, myself included, finding them a little lacking. The sweetness was great and not overdone, but the smokiness in the wing ended up tasting a almost burnt to my tongue. The burnt flavor faded a bit over a few wings, but not enough for me to really save the sauce for me. Though I’m sure others at the table would disagree, and maybe it’s just me and my issues with BBQ wings, but this sauce clocks at a 2/5.
JZ called these “good,” which was a bit of a departure from the rest of us, with LB calling them “pretty boring” and JC finding them “forgettable.” There’s not much I can do to recommend this sauce, really. This set of wings was definitely undersauced, but what sauce was there wasn’t very flavorful. There was a bit of honey sweetness and… not much else, to the point that the wing itself seemed to be lacking flavor. This score isn’t to say it’s a bad sauce, but really at the end of the day it’s basically flavorless and there’s nothing about it that I can recommend. 1/5.
“I find it hard to criticize Teriyaki wings, because they all taste the same,” said LB, “These were good, but they’re all pretty good.” JZ meanwhile found them to be “bleh” and wished they had more sugar and less soy sauce. JG was in the middle of the road here, commenting that “they had the taste, but did not go far enough!” I can’t add much to this, really. The Teriyaki technically ticked all the boxes required for a teriyaki sauce. Ginger, garlic, soy, sugar, all in relatively appropriate amounts. It’s the thing! 3/5.
“Nothing too out of the ordinary, but pretty good” surmised JC. JG agreed, calling them “solid… traditional, no surprises.” TE rounded it out calling them “standard Buffalo… not a bad wing!” Duke’s nailed the classic here. I wish they had a few more notes of heat, but it builds to fairly spicy medium with a few successive wings and lingers just long enough to enjoy. It also manages to do this without the excessive saltiness that others have in their attempts at Buffalo sauce. Not to say that doing it right wins them any extra points, but JG took the words out of my mouth. The Buffalo is a solid, traditional, reliable wing with no surprises, 3/5.
OK, I’m going rogue here. Summary of everyone else’s thoughts: “not as spicy as we expected.” There, I said it. Now for the truth. You remember that scene in Ratatouille at the end when the food critic takes a bite of the titular dish and is instantly transported back to his childhood and his mother’s cooking? That’s kind of what happened to me here, except my mother never made chicken wings. Instead I was taken back to all those times as a kid (and a few times as an adult) in upstate New York when we would get pizza from some local single-location pizza shop (usually Pontillo’s) and occasionally we would get chicken wings as a treat to go with them. No matter which one of these places you went to (and again I’m talking mostly central NY here, not western) the wings would always have this similar taste. It’s a not-quite-Buffalo with some smoke and some sort of dry rub below that’s indescribable. And also it’s my favorite flavor in the whole wide world. That’s what the XXX is here. The heat, even after a couple of wings will only get up to maybe a medium plus, just enough that you can keep tearing through them one after another. I’m sorry, I know this is probably the least objective I’ve been about a sauce ever before, but dammit I can’t help but call the XXX sauce a 5/5.
The XXX may be the outlier at Duke’s, but they still have a pretty strong sauce game. When they’re good they’re pretty decent, and even when they aren’t great they’re still totally inoffensive, leaving the overall at a 3/5.
Duke’s has a decent wing happening here. They’re wonderfully cheap, consistent, crispy where they need to be and juicy the rest of the way. It’s not a stand-out by any measure, but it makes a reliable go-to if you want wings. The wings hit the delicious drum beat for a 3/5.
The Hot Take
I like Duke’s, and it’s close enough to me that I’ll probably swing that way again. Some of the food and most of the drinks are a little pricier than I like for a wing-joint, but they pay for the overhead of a pretty chill spot to hang out. The wings are priced to move, and what you get is definitely worth what you paid for. If you’re in the area, I definitely recommend you check them out, and if you aren’t… well, maybe do so anyways to get that XXX sauce. I talked with the whole group about what they thought the Hot Take here should be, because I was really conflicted, and they were all no help, since they agreed that it was better than a 3, but not quite deserving of a 4. It’s in these dark times that I become so tempted to break my rule of no half-points, but I must hold strong. Which is why I’m giving Duke’s a 3/5, but with an asterisk, stating right here and now that I will go back one more time and try it again to draw the line where any gray area may exist.
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