I Would Fly 12 Hours to Hawai'i Just to Eat Honolulu Chicken Wings Again

Some travelers who’ve just returned from Hawaii dream of sunsets and golden sand, epic hikes, and surfing with sea turtles. I dream of saucy chicken.

<p>Lianne Rozzelle</p>

Lianne Rozzelle

“The sauce will make you live forever.” That’s what the waiter said as he set down my plate of Le Fried Chicken Wings, a house favorite at The Pig and the Lady in Honolulu since opening day in 2013. The words stuck with me long after my first bite, long after I left the restaurant and, frankly, the state.

You see, it’s been a few months since I visited Hawai'i, and this is what plays on repeat in my head. Not sunsets and golden sand, or epic hikes, or surfing with sea turtles — I dream of chicken wings. Don’t get me wrong, I ate some other fantastic dishes in Honolulu: okra topped ulu at Fête, the legendary feathery light coconut cake at Halekulani Hotel, a classic malasada from Leonard’s Bakery — and yet these chicken wings were my best bite on Oahu.

High praise for a dish that’s so ubiquitous it graces even the most humble American sports bar menus, right? But here’s why they deserve it all: Twice fried to perfection, these wings have a light, satisfying crisp that my air fryer wishes it could achieve. They’re meaty. They’re piled high with peanuts, makrut leaves, pickled red onion, and — the pièce de résistance — a dousing of vinegary, citrusy signature “money sauce.”

Related: 22 Spicy, Sweet, and Sticky Sauces for Chicken Wings

It’s what executive chef Andrew Le, a 2014 James Beard Foundation Rising Chef of the Year semifinalist, told me is their “secret ingredient.” Le told me the inspiration came as the best ideas often do — while playing around with ingredients — years back, when grilling oysters. “We decided to use what was growing around us and whatever was in the pantry to try to make a sauce for it.” They ended up combining calamansi juice, coconut sugar, fish sauce, Makrut lime leaf, and Thai chilis. “When we tasted the sauce it made us collectively say ‘That’s money!’”

Besides the creativity and the right balance of sour, sweet, salty, spicy, and aromatic in the sauce, there’s some other magic working for these wings. There’s all the family love behind the flavor. Le takes inspiration from everyday life, friends, and travels and puts his take on Vietnamese dishes here with his family (his mother, aka Mama Le, is the lady in The Pig and the Lady) with favorites like banh mi and pho. “It’s sort of like jazz cooking, and jazz is delicious,” he explained.

<p>Lianne Rozzelle</p>

Lianne Rozzelle

You have to account for the atmosphere, too. I sat at the bar overlooking the chefs’ open-air dessert station, in the heart of the trendy, industrial digs, the perfect perch to witness profiteroles being piped and patrons clinking cocktails. Next to me, a giant light-up ice cream and a smiling pig figurine supplied the good vibes. The setting was warm, inviting, and trendy — the perfect setup for the perfect bite.

Or maybe the magic was in the neighborhood: N. King St. in Chinatown, where lots of talented chefs are congregating downtown (like at Fête and Lucky Belly), is a far cry from the touristed resorts on Waikiki. The restaurant has even drawn the Obama family, who dined there two days after my own game-changing encounter.

Related: How to Respect Hawai’i’s Resources While Visiting, According to a Local

Add The Pig and the Lady to your Honolulu itinerary if you want to get out of the Honolulu resort scene and dig into something real. The wings will be waiting, because as Le says, “Though I do like to change things on the menu often, this is one of the few menu items I can’t take off or else there might be a riot.”

While there's plenty of huli-huli chicken to go around on the islands, I just keep coming back to that vinegary, citrusy, peanuty elixir that I’ve yet to taste on wings anywhere else — one that I threatened to eat with a spoon. You know, the one the waiter told me would make me live forever. That is the magic sauce.

I’m not sure about the whole fountain of youth yet, but I would fly 12 hours back to Hawaii just to taste it again. As for the waiter’s words, I’ve settled on a translation: These are the best life-giving wings you’ll ever have.

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