When the pandemic forced Fishtown’s Cedar Point Bar and Kitchen to temporarily close, owner Shannon Dougherty started feeling weird pangs of guilt. With her staff out of work and her business at a standstill, Dougherty naturally found herself swimming in anxiety. But there was something else, albeit far less serious, also creating some remorse.
“The neighborhood people needed their veggie wing fix — it was a thing,” says Dougherty.
Made with seitan and tossed with Buffalo, barbecue, or sweet chile sauce, vegan wings are Cedar Point’s top-selling item. And as soon as the restaurant closed its doors, people started calling for them.
So Dougherty and her partner quickly came up with a plan. In mid-March, they started launching weekly veggie wing pop-ups out of the restaurant. And by the end of April, those wings raised $10,000 for Cedar Point’s staff.
“The first day there was a line snaking down the block, and this was when everyone was extremely scared of large gatherings,” says Dougherty. “So we started expanding our hours to help dampen the crowds, and I just couldn’t believe how constant it was. People were just so thankful, and it was truly pure joy for everyone involved.”
Cedar Point sells chicken wings, too. But it’s the meatless ones that draw a following, a statement that’s echoed by an array of restaurants who cook up both traditional and vegan versions.
“People will get the veggie wings and then order a burger, so it’s not even about them being vegetarian,” says Doughery. “They’re not as messy, which I think people like.”
South Philadelphia Tap Room chef Doreen DeMarco agrees, noting, “texturally, they kind of eat like a chicken nugget or chicken finger.” The Tap Room’s double-fried seitan wings are among its most popular menu items, often chosen by non-meat-eaters over the two chicken wing options.
While akin to a boneless wing, the texture does vary depending on who’s making them. Many chefs use seitan (made from wheat gluten) for its pull-apart consistency, but you’ll also find restaurants turning ingredients like tofu and cauliflower into deep-fried, -sauce-slathered snacks. Here’s where you can try them in Philadelphia.
Cedar Point’s wings start with hand-pulled seitan that’s fried and then tossed with Buffalo sauce made from Frank’s Red Hot, Earth Balance, apple cider vinegar, cayenne, and red pepper flakes. If you don’t love spicy, they’re offered in BBQ and sweet chile versions, too. And they all include a hearty portion of fried Brussels sprouts, halved and tossed with the wings to add a slight bitterness. But the star of the dish, says Dougherty, is the sweet and sour apricot horseradish dipping sauce, made from a base of coconut milk and Vegenaise.
If it weren’t for the concept of crispy fried wings, Blackbird owner Mark Mebus may have never gotten into the business of making seitan. “In a lot of ways, wings are really what I developed our seitan recipe for,” says Mebus, who first made seitan eight years ago to create wings for Super Bowl Sunday.
Today, Mebus is the cofounder of Blackbird Foods, the seitan supplier for many restaurants in the area. And it’s this seitan — stringy, soft, and chicken-like in texture — that he uses at his pizza and sandwich shop to craft three versions of wings. The most popular are the spicy sweet, slathered in a tangy, moderately spicy BBQ-like sauce made with sugar, lemon juice, ketchup, and chili flakes. There’s also the habanero Buffalo, twice as spicy as its classic counterpart, and the root beer, featuring a sauce that draws its rich molasses flavor from demerara sugar and a splash of soda. All feature hand-ripped seitan that’s breaded in coarse cornmeal and cornstarch, deep-fried, sauced, and served with a house-made cucumber ranch.
Triangle Tavern goes through a couple hundred pounds of seitan a week for its vegan wings, consistently outselling its regular wings and every other item on the menu. At the base is Blackbird seitan, hand-ripped to create extra texture, and then dredged in salt- and sage-seasoned flour. The irregular strips are fried to order, and tossed with Buffalo sauce (Frank’s Red Hot and Earth Balance) or Country Sweet, a sauce originating in Rochester, N.Y., where chef Mike Schwartz grew up. “It’s a sticky, sweet sauce, almost like a barbecue but brighter, with lemon juice and apple cider vinegar, and crushed red pepper flakes for spice,” says Schwartz, noting it’s his favorite. Both versions come with vegan ranch and celery.
This Northern Liberties spot serves up crispy, panko-coated wings covered with Buffalo sauce, barbecue, or Cajun dry rub. At the base is a soy product, coconut oil, and other plant-based binders, cut into thick strips and then dusted with oregano and other seasonings. “Texturally, I liken it to the chewiness of a McDonald’s chicken nugget,” says chef Ian Evans. After picking a sauce, pick your pairing: vegan blue cheese, ranch, or chipotle aioli.
In Mount Airy, you’ll find one of the few places using tofu for itsvegan wings. This makes it easier to create not only a battered-and-fried version, but also a grilled, gluten-free take. Both start with deep-fried tofu that’s been marinated in brown sugar, spices, and house-made vegan fish sauce. The tofu then heads to the grill for gluten-free orders, or is coated in flour and fried again. Sauce choices include house-made barbecue or Buffalo made with Frank’s Red Hot sauce and vegan butter.
Front Street turns upward of 300 heads of cauliflower a week into “wings,” made from florets soaked in an apple cider vinegar brine, tossed with seasoned rice flour, and then flash-fried to order. You’ve got your pick of four sauces: the original and best-selling Buffalo (Frank’s Red Hot, garlic, plant-based butter, and a hint of Dijon mustard), General Tso’s, creamy garlic sriracha, and a new whiskey barbecue, a tangy, mustard-based concoction that incorporates spirits from Keystone Distillery. “I wanted to have this healthier twist on comfort food, and cauliflower is just so versatile and holds up well in the fryer,” says executive chef Andrew Petruzelli.
“I have a vegan wings problem,” says co-owner Meghan Wright, who, although not vegan, eats the popular menu item at least once a week. The Abbaye’s wings feature thick-cut strips of seitan that are battered with soy milk, spices, and breadcrumbs from day-old baguettes, then fried, and tossed with vegan butter and Frank’s Red Hot. Orders come with carrots, celery, and Vegenaise.
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Price: $6 (sm.), $10 (lg.)
The wings at this West Philly cafe get doused in a spicy Buffalo sauce twice. The process starts with marinating Blackbird seitan in soy sauce, smoked paprika, and other seasonings. Then comes the first round of sauce, followed by a coating of flour and herbs. After frying, the nuggets are tossed in a second Buffalo bath, then served with an extra shot of sauce. There’s a barbecue version, too, and come spring, a Korean barbecue option is headed for the menu. “It’s my mother’s secret recipe,” says co-owner Joseph Oh.
These crispy seitan wings are ideal takeout candidates, twice-fried to hold up over time. They’re made from hand-torn seitan, brined for 24-hours in a tangy, spicy “buttermilk” made with soy milk, soy sauce, hot sauce, and lemon juice. After soaking, the wings are dredged with a mix of flour, cornmeal, and cornstarch, then fried, and fried again. Sauce options include Buffalo, barbecue, or sweet mustard, either tossed with the wings, or by request, served on the side so you can mix and match.
Both Cantina locations offer vegan wings, with three rotating sauces always on each menu. They’re made from hand-pulled Blackbird seitan, tossed straight into the fryer at Los Caballitos, while at Dos Segundos, they are first coated with rice flour, sage, cumin, salt, and pepper. Sauce options range from extra spicy habanero Buffalo to smoked garlic mojo to chipotle hoisin.
Khyber’s Blackbird seitan-based wings get a Cajun twist, dredged in yellow cornmeal, flour, and spices, like cayenne, garlic powder, and paprika. After leaving the deep-fryer, they’re tossed with a traditional Buffalo sauce or a Kansas City-style barbecue, made from pureed roasted onions and garlic, mustard, brown sugar, and a heavy dose of ketchup, and molasses. Order a sampler to try both.
Wings and boards games don’t usually go hand in hand, but the easy-to-eat-by-fork seitan version at this board game bar and cafe is the most popular item on the menu. They’ve got three sauce choices: classic Buffalo, sweet hickory barbecue, and the top-selling Four Flavor, made from jalapeños, limes, butter, and agave. “It’s like a margarita on wings,” says owner Edward Garcia. Looking for something lighter? Cauliflower wings are on the menu, too.
Veganish keeps its wing recipe a secret, but its star is cauliflower, providing a tender base beneath a crispy exterior. The Buffalo version is most popular but the fried florets come doused in spicy agave and barbecue sauces, too. Each order includes six wings and a vegan blue cheese dipping sauce.
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