Photo by Abe Beame.
Exploring The Legend of Snyder Wings: The Best Fried Chicken in New York City
On Utica Avenue, a Chinese spot with a line out the door is known by word of mouth for the best fried chicken in New York City. After a month-long hiatus, we recaptured the crispy, tender magic of Snyder Wings.
Right now, if you’d like to see something remarkable, open a browser window and enter the words “Snyder Wings” into a search bar. A nondescript takeout Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn with no tables, cheaply tiled and harshly lit, papered with out-of-date fliers and advertisements, called, literally, “China Restaurant," located at 937 Utica Avenue, is the business page and first hit. The name serves to accentuate its generic anonymity. The restaurant is located on Utica at the northeast corner of its intersection with Snyder Avenue, an ugly four-lane and low-slung, very Caribbean commercial strip of East Flatbush. All over New York City, there are literally thousands of restaurants exactly like it in every way except for one. The restaurant is locally famous for its chicken wings, so much so that its shorthand nickname is forever linked to its DBA online.
“Bulletproof Chinese” is a genre of restaurant common to any New York City resident. It has been labeled as such because many of these restaurants feature a thick wall of plexiglass beginning at standing counter height, with a just-tall-enough window and rotating plate that allows for the exchange of money for food — poured into lidded plastic cylindrical quarts and pints, or stacked in brown paper bags — between back and front of house. It’s an institution here, a narrow selection of Cantonese diner cuisine that has been dumbed down, a broken translation for the LCD American palate. It’s an umami packed, soy sauce forward offering of starches and proteins rich in grease and flavor. It’s fuel food that is plentiful, time and cost-conscious, for working class families and day laborers, but also serves as a cross-cultural and cross-income-bracket reflex Seamless order for New Yorkers suffering from respiratory illnesses, a big tent, cure-all comfort food the city adopted into its dietary lexicon generations ago.
These restaurants aren’t a franchise, but there is a commonality in the writing of their menus. On every one you will find some random outliers, but mostly the same shit: White pepper tanged hot and sour soup, beef and brown sauced once frozen broccoli stalks, slurry thickened viscous orange slathered boneless chunks identified as General Tso’s Chicken, sacks of red-rimmed roasted pork spareribs. These are items that are as synonymous to the genre as chicken nuggets and burgers are to America’s quick service restaurant franchises. One of these staple dishes is the fried chicken wing, an offering of pragmatic cultural fusion, adopted by the cuisine intended to cater to the palettes of the key demos in many of the urban areas where these types of Chinese restaurants thrive.
They often come three or four to an order, in a small wax paper bag, or in its most recognizable form, in a stapled styrofoam clamshell container on a bed of pork fried rice, perhaps with an eggroll or small side soup, priced as a lunch special that retails for slightly more than a subway swipe. They are not the double egg washed, AP flour-dipped varietal common to the American definition of fried chicken that emerged from Black kitchens in the American South. It’s not thick and craggy, not as aggressively seasoned in that tradition. The Bulletproof Chinese chicken wing is a wetter batter, a thinly crusted boomerang with the drumette, winglet and wingtip served as an anatomical unit, dredged in a blend of cornstarch and flour thinned with egg and water that yields sublime crunch and a juicy, ideal vehicle for vinegar-based hot sauce, eye-watering Chinese mustard, or my personal preference: fluorescent tangerine, gooey duck sauce squeezed out of rectangular glassine packets that produces a perfect marriage of sweet and savory. If you value a clean bite of fried chicken, as I do, which is to say a bite of chicken wing in which the fried skin adheres exactly to the meat without shattering the crust or pulling any more than the circumference of a given bite, it’s the ideal iteration.
The Bulletproof Chinese Chicken Wing is a foodstuff that boasts an uncommon uniformity. It is generally the same, and perfect, everywhere, which is why the Snyder Wing is so uncommonly special. Imagine a bodega famous for selling the best Three Musketeers bar, or a single McDonalds branch that locals agree serves the best Big Mac in the country. This is the miraculous charm, the phenomenon that is The Snyder Wing.
The legend of the Snyder Wing
Photo by Abe Beame.
I first heard about the restaurant because my daughter attended a daycare on the corner of Snyder Avenue and Flatbush Avenue. One day in the course of picking her up, I overheard the exclusively West Indian staff discussing the merits of the wings and asked about them. I mention this because as far as I can tell, this is basically how everyone discovers Snyder Wings.
The Snyder Wing, listed simply on China Restaurant’s menu as “Soy Sauce Wings”, (or, at least on Yelp, referred to by many as “Crack Wings”) can now cost a stunning $3.00 per wing, depending on how few you purchase. This is a quote generally reserved for New York’s legacy food items: A slice of pizza from Di Fara, a burger from Minetta Tavern, a pastrami sandwich from Katz's Delicatessen. These are landmarked items that have made enough silly internet listicles that if no person who actually lives in New York ever ate them ever again, the businesses would still turn a profit because of the steady stream of tourist revenue. What makes Snyder unique is amongst New York City, and even Brooklyn’s micro-focused food literati, the restaurant is practically unknown. It has rarely been mentioned by any of the proliferated food blogs covering the area, very little in the way of even a common local TikTok review. In this terminally online era of dining, when nearly every dollar oyster happy hour and elevated bread service is breathlessly reported, the Snyder Wing is one of New York’s last word-of-mouth secrets.
Photo by Abe Beame.
But there is ample demand for the supply. If you were to drive down Utica on Super Bowl Sunday, or Labor Day weekend, or Christmas Eve, you would see a line stretching out of China Restaurant down the block, until they sell out, which always happens well before they close. In East Brooklyn, it remains a destination. I once bought a tray of Snyder Wings for a viewing of a Knicks playoff game with some friends. When I told them what I bought for the occasion, a gravity descended on the party, as if I had brought Patrick Ewing himself, or the Arc of the Covenant.
It had been some time since I’d been back to Snyder, partially because it’s a hike from my apartment, and partially because the restaurant had been closed for over a month. I’d been calling intermittently for weeks, when on Sunday, as the standard, rambling answering machine message played, a woman picked up who, interrupting the message, identified herself as Chang and told me the restaurant was finally reopening Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. (an hour before their listed opening time on Google). I tried to explain to her that I was writing a story about the wings and wanted to see if I could speak to her a bit about the history of the restaurant, to which she kept asking if I wanted to order a medium tray or large tray.
Chinese for breakfast
On Tuesday morning I park around the corner and walk into the restaurant, which is still observing Covid protocols from the absolute height of the pandemic. The staff is all wearing masks and a sign demands customers do so as well, though I am the only person on the other side of the counter observing. A large table in front of the counter puts the guest at an even further remove than the standard wall-length “Bulletproof” window and makes conversation with Chang, who in person turns out to be a small, middle-aged, masked Asian woman struggling with English, labored, to say the least.
After some wild gesticulating, I’m able to coax Chang over to the side of the service window, where a roped-off open door leading to the kitchen still doesn’t make conversation easy, but marginally possible. Chang calls over a middle-aged man in a sleeveless shirt, who appears to be a chef at the restaurant as well as an interpreter. We proceed to have a conversation out of Pynchon, or Lynch, or Kafka, take your pick of surrealist post-modernists. The chef tells me that I need to speak to the owner, who is out, but could possibly be back sometime this afternoon. He tells me he doesn’t know anything in particular about the history or food production in the restaurant and has only been working there for two years. He tells me he is from Hong Kong. I ask what the owner’s name is — also Chang. He believes the restaurant has been around for “some time since like 1980.” He suddenly, brusquely cuts off our conversation by telling me he’s busy, and heads back to work.
The woman Chang and I continue to talk for a bit, with me resorting to translating from English to Mandarin using Google Translate on my phone, which she reads from several feet away, squinting and repeating the Mandarin before responding haltingly. She tells me she has also only worked at the restaurant for two years. She tells me she is from Beijing. She tells me that the chef, and in fact everyone who works in the restaurant, is named Chang. The restaurant had been closed because the owner went back to China for a month of vacation. I suspect nearly everything I am told is misdirection or miscommunication.
I could make an impassioned point about our Immigration and Customs Enforcement Gestapo, and the horrors New York's Asian community had to endure during Trump's nightmare Reich that continue through today — which could explain why I had such trouble getting basic answers for an article praising the food at this restaurant and theoretically helping the business, but a more likely answer, as a person who has spent a significant portion of their life in establishments like these, is they certainly can engender friendly banter and good service, but they often don’t. This is a business that has done just fine for what could be 40 years without grinning white reporters asking invasive and confusing questions about their business and their food while they’re attempting to set up the kitchen for a day of service. I placed an order for two wings, and paid $6 cash.
The restaurant is one of the few of the genre that separates the drumette and wingette, leading to the semantic accounting and confusing, hand-scribbled wording on the paper plate taped to plexiglass above the counter, serving as a menu. It was served instantly, which means like many high-volume fried chicken restaurants, they’re fried off in large batches and held at temperature, meaning if you go with any regularity it would be wise to figure out how frequently and when this typically occurs, as you’d want to be as close to getting your chicken fresh out of the frier as possible.
Photo by Abe Beame.
The taste test
Because there is no space to eat in the restaurant I took the wings, in their foil-insulated paper bag, to my car, eating it behind the wheel, off the bag laid across the top of my dashboard. The wings were hot, crispy, and moist. As I sat eating, I was bothered by the taste test. In the name of science and journalism, it needed a control. So I drove a few blocks to another takeout Chinese place I found on Google Maps called Kitchen Time, on Nostrand, below Winthrope. I got another bag of wings (Four, served whole, for seven dollars) and lined both up.
The control wings were freshly fried, had taken seven minutes of cook time and were hot to the touch, glistening out of the cooking oil. They were golden to Snyder’s trademark burnt ochre. The wings were decent, well-salted, significantly less juicy, the skin had something of an unpleasant crumble to it. As I went back to my second Snyder wing, even as it had time to steam in the bag and lose some of its crisp, the texture was unparalleled. But the difference maker is the flavor, the soy sauce in the name of the wing. There’s a lacquer of salted caramel, a flavor that is savory, sweet and yeasty that is what sets the Snyder Wing apart.
Photo by Abe Beame.
When I was waiting for my order at 10:30 a.m., on the restaurant’s unannounced first day back in business, two men came in separately. One was an older Caribbean man who had no patience for my Google translating, placing a large order to go, and the other was an affable, tall 29-year-old who seemed much younger, in knee socks and flip-flop sandals, basketball shorts, a plain Hanes t-shirt, and a doo-rag, who identified himself as Antonio. Antonio was there for a breakfast of six wings, and told me he’d been raised on Snyder Wings, that he’d been coming here for “29 years, well probably before,” which I took to mean his mother would eat them when pregnant with him. He told me that it was a go-to spot in the area for catering, which is precisely what the older man was there for, bringing lunch to some sort of function for his granddaughter. Chang’s head popped up in the small window cut out of the thick glass, and she came as close to a smile, at least with her eyes, as anything I’d gotten out of her during my time in the restaurant, before asking, “Yeah, what do you want?”. Antonio returned the smile and said, “It’s been a long month!”
Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City.
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