Written by Jordan Redmond / Photos by Robert Michael Evans
Nekkid Wings aims to be your trusty winghouse
There are wings and then there are wings. The former the kind of limp, sad items placed on menus to attract folks into helping empty the kegs midweek. The latter, however, can be objects of adoration bordering on addiction. The flavor hit from a hot, crispy, well-sauced chicken wing can lead a man to dye his hair blond, wear his sunglasses on the back of his neck, and yell non-sequiturs.
Small but powerful items, then, chicken wings. And there’s a multitude of reasons they’ve become perhaps the go-to bar food in the United States, a country full of hedonic dishes. Wings are a sauce lovers dream, capable of coming dressed in an infinite amount of flavors, the array of which are the sticky sweet dream of capitalism. Also, good wings are incredibly tactile, the act of using one’s hands and teeth to rip at flesh and economically separate crispy skin and succulent meat from bone (and even bone from bone) no doubt tickling the more primal parts of our brains. Lastly, wings are one of the few food items known to humankind that can make a shitty beer taste incredible.
Seoul has made great strides in recent years as far as the breadth and quality of American food goes. In fact, almost all of your bases are quite well-covered: pizza, burgers, tacos. But wings? Outside of a few wing nights, virtually nowhere has been brave enough to specialize. In the Land of Chicken and Beer, the reason is so painfully obvious that we can’t see it. Good chicken is too pervasive with chimaek on every corner, relatively cheap and usually very delicious. By starting an American-style wings joint, you’re basically banking on expat support being all one needs to survive. In other words, not exactly a viable business plan when there are still only 150,000 Americans living in the entire country. However, if you’re just steps away from a large American military base and located in food-forward Itaewon where flocks of young Koreans swarm searching for an authentic taste of abroad, then you might just have a fighting chance.
Nekkid Wings is hoping to have found that celery stick-sized hole-in-the-market. The restaurant, located in the same alley as Linus BBQ and Sweet East Cafe, is the passion project of Saeahm Lee. Saeahm picked up his jones for wings while living in Arkansas having become a devotee of Buffalo Wild Wings, an American chain specializing in the art of the chicken wing. Listening to Saeahm talk, one can detect a bit of Arkansas drawl in his English even though he was born-and-raised in Korea. Having moved back to Korea, Saeahm got in contact with Buffalo Wild Wings about whether or not they planned to open a Korean branch and having had his hopes dashed by an unresponsive corporate entity, he decided to take matters into his own hands by opening his own temple of wings.
Saeahm enlisted friends, Youngwook Suh and Junki Cho, to start testing if his dream, in fact, had any wings. It was all a very methodical process. A Google survey of friends and friends-of-friends uncovered a lot of useful data for an aspiring restaurateur like the answers to really granular questions such as “What parts of the chicken do you like or dislike the most?” and “If you don’t finish your plate of chicken, why is that?”. One interesting quirk of the chimaek system that Saeahm found was that an order of chicken from a typical chicken joint is too large for one person to eat in a sitting. An order of wings is smaller and could be a solution for the chicken-seeking solo diner.
With these questions, Saeahm and co. were calibrating their restaurant. The three then rented a test kitchen in Itaewon and over the course of five months perfected their flavors and systems by inviting friends over to taste test. Other than simply trying to hone their wings, the co-founders were also looking for a way to appeal to Korean tastes and to find out how to make their project viable for the local market.
The resulting menu is a compromise between tried-and-true American wing flavors such as buffalo and lemon pepper along with sauces more attuned to Korean tastebuds such as a take on the sticky red yangnyeom sauce that coats a lot of birds here. There are 10 flavors in all. The standout is the house sauce called “Amazinger”, which is indeed zingy with a building heat due to cayenne pepper. The buffalo sauce is creamy and will be a nostalgia-inducing taste of home for some. The parmesan-garlic was also a star. The texture when parmesan meets a warm, moist surface such as the top of spaghetti coated with sauce, that magic happens here on these wings as well. For hot wings fanatics, there is the Amazing Xtra to put the hurt on you.
One platter of 10 wings along with fries or chips, celery and carrots with a dipping sauce (appropriately, blue cheese or ranch) will run you KRW 16,000. The wings are good-sized, not the miniscule things sometimes being passed off as chicken wings here. The portion of chips served was ample. Perhaps some malt vinegar could be supplied to really set them off. Beers are in the KRW 8,000-7,000 range. On the higher end of things for sure but the list of made up of local favorites such as Magpie and Hand & Malt so at least your money is going back into the local economy. It is slightly regrettable that a cheap Korean beer option isn’t available but you could say that about several similar foreign-food driven Itaewon establishments.
Having just opened at the beginning of April, Nekkid Wings is already popular. The restaurant’s thirty seats were almost full on a Tuesday night. The restaurant, unlike American wing spots, has no television to be seen and definitely none in the bathroom. Instead of a sports bar vibe, Nekkid seems to be going for a sleeker image, more in-tune with the currently pervasive industrial-chic design trend. Saeahm and company seem to be consciously trying to break with winghouse precedent, especially considering their logo of an unpeeled banana. Why? Because, according to Saeahm, every other place has a chicken on their sign so why not be different? It’s this level of thoughtfulness that should help Nekkid succeed in being an Itaewon institution.
Address: Yongsan-gu, Noksapyeong-daero 174-11