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Two years ago — before Bon Appétit said Hot Joy was the seventh best restaurant in the country, before Andrew Knowlton compared the restaurant to culinary trendsetters like Danny Bowien and Mission Chinese Food, and before The New York Times devoted a front-page story to Quealy Watson — there was just a man and his putrid bowl of wings.
The dish that put San Antonio on the culinary map in a way that it had not yet been before, Hot Joy’s crab fat caramel wings, are, if nothing else, divisive.
The chicken, which now goes for $12.99 every night except for Wing Wednesday, reeks to high heaven. Once you look at the ingredients, it’s clear why. The base flavor comes from reducing fish sauce into a caramel. As fish sauce comes from fermenting anchovies and salt, the scent is naturally pungent, and that’s before boiling it down. Once the salty, funky liquid has been concentrated to a viscosity somewhere between melted asphalt and molasses, sugar and crab paste are then added. The wings, which are doubly fried in a vodka-laced batter, get tossed in a mixing bowl filled with enough of the lava-like sludge to look like the La Brea tar pit, after which they are topped with peanuts and cilantro and sent to your table.
Though they smell like salty, resinous rotten eggs, make no mistake — they are remarkable. The double dip in hot oil makes the crunch of the skin shatter like peanut brittle, and the white marble meat below is milky white and dripping wet. The outer coating is sweet, but mutedly so, and in such a way that the deep, baritone funk of the fish caramel is balanced by the tiny shrill of sugar. The sauce is mercilessly sticky and the meat is piping hot, giving you both a reason and an excuse to suck the treacly sap from your fingertips. As you eat, the sauce will pool and congeal at the bottom of the bowl, and if you take them home, the wings will set like wet cement in their viscous plaster.
In their smell, appearance, and presentation they are unlike any chicken you have ever tasted, but it is their taste you will remember. Deeply rich, crunchy, musty, and complex, you will either never want to see them again, or you will need them the next day.
1014 S. Alamo St., (210) 368-9324.
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