One of our Top 50 barbecue joints, Gatlin’s BBQ might quietly be the best chicken wing shop in Houston. “You’d be surprised to know how many people don’t know we have wings at all,” owner Greg Gatlin told me during a recent visit. Wings weren’t on the menu when the doors opened at Gatlin’s new location in 2015. They were added when the Super Bowl came to Houston in 2017 and thankfully have never left.
I would have missed them during an earlier visit this year, if chef Michelle Wallace hadn’t urged me to add a few to my order. Five flavors are offered, but the options are relegated to a single chalkboard to the far right of both the specials and the standard menu that dominate the space above the ordering counter. I’m glad I got a taste because I ended up trying all five before my meal was through. They were everything I love in a chicken wing. They featured bold sauces, tender meat, and properly cooked skin that wasn’t flabby.
To get the salt seasoning down into the meat, most of the wings are brined in a salt-and-sugar solution with pickled jalapeño juice, lemon juice, and fresh garlic. The sweet Thai chili flavor is marinated with sesame oil and soy sauce, and, just like the buffalo wing flavor, they’re only fried rather than getting some smoke first. I enjoyed them both, but the flavor and the yielding tenderness of the varieties they smoke are more memorable.
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All the smoked wings are brined, rubbed, and smoked for about 3 1/2 hours in a 245-degree smoker. Once they’re done smoking, they’re quickly chilled. For each order, the chilled wings are dropped into a deep fryer, then sauced to serve. The smoking and frying ensures tender meat and crispy skin that doesn’t often come from choosing just a single cooking method. I asked Gatlin why he doesn’t just go straight from the smoker to the fryer. “If you try to put them in [the fryer] from the pit, the skin tears,” he said. They learned that after multiple test batches. During that same testing, Gatlin realized he didn’t like the buffalo sauce on the smoked wings and needed to develop another unique sauce. That’s why their “house sauce” was born.
I could drink the stuff. Unfortunately, they don’t bottle it—yet. Gatlin’s house sauce somehow splits the difference between the usual wing-shop barbecue and honey mustard flavors. There’s some mustard, honey, and tomato, but there’s also a twang from vinegar and some spices I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s not too sweet, and it’s thin enough to coat the wings. That sauce on a smoked and fried wing made this the only time I’ve longingly pondered a chicken wing days after eating it. My most recent visit to Gatlin’s was just an excuse to eat another order of the smoked wings with house sauce.
At six wings (separated, not whole wings) for $6, Gatlin’s offers a pretty good deal too. Gatlin cooks up about twelve cases per week, and said he’d be able to lower the price even more if the demand were higher. I think Houston just needs to discover them and realize that Gatlin’s has better sides—including greens, creamed corn, and dirty rice—than you can get at most wing shops. They undoubtedly serve better wings than any of the big chains. And maybe Gatlin’s biggest advantage is that none of those other joints have the option to add some smoked brisket to the bucket of wings you plan to bring home to watch the game.