Wing’s Diner: Buttermilk and Scarred Arms

Fried chicken

Wing’s Diner, a much buzzed-about fried chicken pop-up currently operating out of the kitchen at Small Bar on Bristol’s King Street, has a more complex recipe than might at first be obvious.

Fried chicken, chicken and waffles, wings, dirty fries… Wing’s Diner seems to talk with an American accent. But when Kevin Bradshaw and Wayne Chung break down their cooking techniques a hidden influence emerges.

“We take the American aspect of buttermilking our chicken,” says Kevin, referring to the practice of marinating the chicken in buttermilk for 24 hours. “On the Asian side, we double-fry it. You do the first fry, let it rest, and then do the second fry when the order comes in, which gets the skin good and crispy.”

The name of the operation is another subtle clue: Wayne is Wing, and the apostrophe that looks at first like a typo actually indicates his ownership of the business.

“My parents ran a take away in Kingswood, called Chung’s Fish Bar,” says Wayne. “I’ve always cooked and been around cooking.” He shows forearms peppered with small burns from years spent operating deep-fat fryers. “Scars everywhere! That’s from frying fish, chicken balls, that sort of thing. The seasoning and the double-fry, that’s what I learned from my parents.”

“We used to work together in a law firm on Queen’s Square, in human resources and IT support, and we also used to live together,” says Kevin. Indeed, there is something brotherly in the way these two softly-spoken young men interact with each other, only underlined by their matching black t-shirts and red baseball caps. “We used to cook for each other and have… not cook-offs, exactly, but we would try to do outdo each other,” says Wayne. “It was therapeutic.”

After ten years working in an office, Kevin, now 35, took some time off, went travelling, and on his return began working as a cook on the summer festival circuit. Meanwhile, he and Wayne made frequent trips to London for gigs where they were inspired by hip fried chicken operations such as Chick’n’Sours and BIRD. “Seeing how busy they were, we started thinking, why isn’t there anything like this in Bristol?” says Kevin. “We started frying at home, trying techniques. We bought some books on frying chicken, tried some different recipes, different sauces. About two years ago we thought, let’s go for it – let’s do a pop-up supper club for some friends.”

It didn’t go well but was successful enough to convince them that there was the seed of something in the idea and so, after a few more such events carried off with increasing polish, they moved into operating pop-ups in short stints at various pubs around the city. They settled for good at Small Bar at the end of 2017 and expect to stay there, if not for good, then at least for the foreseeable future.

In general, attempts to reinvent or elevate junk food (or street food if you want to be dainty about it) can often be a disappointment. I don’t recall being impressed with many of the products of the supposed gourmet burger boom of the past decade, for example, and don’t get me going on the upstarts who had the nerve to attempt to reboot the East End beigel from a converted Renault van within spitting distance of the legendary 24-hour beigel shops of Brick Lane. Fried chicken, though, seems a fair target, being much talked about on imported TV shows such as Man vs. Food and in the American foodie press but hard to find in the UK outside high street chains. There is no native tradition to trample over, and plenty of room for improvement.

Wayne and Kevin aren’t pretentious and won’t be lured into criticising KFC or local legends Miss Millie’s – “There’s a time and a place,” says Kevin – but have clearly identified a gap in the market for something a cut above. “We do want people, hopefully, to be able to taste the difference between a KFC breast burger and one of ours,” says Wayne. But accessibility is also important which is the primary reason they don’t lean on organic or free range in their pitch. “We try to source higher welfare meat when possible but we can’t be charging £15, £20 for a meal that is essentially comfort food,” says Wayne, brow furrowed. As it is, £10 for a two-piece chicken meal with fries or rice feels highly competitive with standard pub grub prices, which is a fairer comparison.

But what about the food – is the bubbling hype justified? Some of the side dishes and specials still feel like works in progress (purple sweet potato waffles didn’t do much for me, for example) but the chicken, the main event, is as close to perfect as I’ve ever encountered. A golden crust of peaks, troughs and promontories, crunches like cornflakes. The meat is heavily (that is, correctly) seasoned, and the buttermilk renders it moist despite the rigours of a double-dip in hot oil. The thigh is challengingly fatty, a quite intense textural experience, while the breast is milder, cleaner and only a little less satisfying. Sweet pickled daikon (radish) and various sweet, sour and spicy sides cut through the salt and richness. The lack of bones might offend purists who like to see the remains of a vanquished enemy spread before them at the end of a meal, but it works for me, making for a neat eat in a busy bar.

But never mind my opinion – what does Wayne’s Mum think? “She really likes it,” says Wayne, not sounding quite convinced, “but I think she’d prefer me to be running a Chinese take away.”

Disclosure: I ate at Wing’s Diner twice out of my own pocket but Wayne and Kevin also provided a portion of chicken during my interview with them.