Philly Food Finds: David's salt and pepper chicken wings

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Salt and pepper wings at David's Mai Lah Wah, 10th and Race Streets.

Food writer Carolyn Wyman wrote a feature for Philadelphia City Paper that probed the stories behind some of Philadelphia's most popular dishes. Alas, City Paper ceased publication. We're proud to continue Carolyn's fine work here at philly.com/food.  

Think that WIP's annual Wing Bowl is the only gathering of people publicly chowing down on chicken wings? The same thing happens nightly, on a smaller scale, at David’s Mai Lai Wah in Chinatown.

David’s, open until 3 or 4 a.m. daily, is a favorite of late-night clubbers and post-shift chefs. And one of the most popular dishes is the salt and pepper chicken wings.

Owner David Chan estimates he sells about 100 orders a day to “almost every table,” and a glance around his 60-seat restaurant on a recent Thursday midnight bore this out. In fact, Chan says sales of the wings have begun to edge out his perennially popular fried dumplings with ginger appetizer.

Why? Partly probably because the wings are fried. Nothing soaks up alcohol better. But Chan also likes to “think it’s the flavor. It’s a little crunchy and a little spicy. And it’s dry - it has no sauce. So even kids love it.”

Adults who want to up the heat eat the wings with the diced jalapenos that double as decoration.

Salt and pepper is a standard Hong Kong/Cantonese food preparation for squid, says Chan, a Hong Kong native. He had eaten and cooked salt and pepper squid at other Philadelphia-area Chinese restaurants after moving here as a teenager and put it on the opening menu of his own restaurant in 1982. But he only started making a chicken wing version a decade ago at the request of an imaginative salt-and-pepper-squid-loving customer.

“The wings are in the fire longer because they’re bigger but the preparation is just about the same,” Chan says. It includes marinating the wings in salt, coating them in cornstarch, then deep-frying them in vegetable oil until well done, though still light in color - about 20 minutes for the large wings David uses.

“People don’t like to see any blood,” Chan notes. Then the wings are pan-fried in a wok briefly with more salt, white pepper and the chopped jalapenos.

In other words, this recipe is easy enough for anyone who makes salt and pepper squid to copy and a number of other Chinatown restaurants have done just that. But none of the replica wings or other late-night Chinatown restaurants have been as popular, Chan contends.

That includes a satellite restaurant David himself opened across the street in 2001 to relieve his post-last-call lines. “We had the same menu, and open tables. But people still stood in line at David’s. We are the spot,” he says with a shrug and a smile.

Chan only seems vaguely familiar with the recent Korean fried chicken craze/competition like Bonchon (only saying he hasn't seen a "cutback" in his own wings business) and says he "doesn't know" the famous local chefs (Jose Garces and Al Paris among them) who haunt his restaurant after closing their own places.

He offers a pained expression at the mention of the bacchanalia that is Wing Bowl. (The principal late-night, alcohol-fueled bad behavior at his place? Cat fights where "girls yank on each other's hair.")

Chan looks out over his little corner room of '60s mirror, chrome and faded backlit Chinese landscape paintings with the equanimity of a man who has been feeding inebriated Philadelphians long before Jose Garces, Wing Bowl and Bonchon, and will likely still be doing it long after these others are gone.

Get It: $8 for an order of 10 wings at David's Mai Lai Wah, 1001 Race St., 215-627-2610, 4 p.m.- 3 a.m. Sun.-Thu.; 4 p.m.-4 a.m. Fri.-Sat.