On any day in Memphis, you will always find a steady line of patrons waiting for their table at the famous Central BBQ. Located downtown in the shadows of the city's famous Civil Rights museum, the restaurant is famous for its Memphis-style barbecue, serving everything from hearty racks of baby back ribs to pulled pork.
Out of everything on the menu, though, locals will recommend the smoked hot wings. The hot, peppery dry rub is an ode to the city's famous barbecue style, and owner Craig Blondis' unique smoking method gives the wings an aromatic kick. For Blondis, the secret to good hot wings comes down to three main components.
"Wings should have three layers of flavor. You should have the hot sauce it was marinated in, the smoke, and then however you finish it," he says, also crediting his ability to house a large-scale smoke production.
In Memphis, no plate of hot wings tastes the same. Blondis is joined by countless Memphis chefs who have their own secret recipes for the classic dish. The city's barbecue culture, specifically its famous dry rub, has helped defined Southern cuisine. Hot wings, in particular, are woven into the city's rich culinary legacy, with many locals opening establishments to showcase their secret recipes.
For people like Billy Richmond Jr., who worked in restaurants serving hot wings since the age of nine, opening his own place was always the plan. His restaurant, the Wing Guru, is a testament to his Memphis upbringing.
"The reason why the name is so fitting for my business being the Wing Guru [is] because I paid my dues. I know the ins and outs of the business since I was a kid, and I'm passionate for it," he says. Because of this, the wing connoisseur also says that he knows when a restaurant is serving quality hot wings.
"I know who has really good wings and who has mediocre wings, and I know who has great wings," says Richmond. "If I taste a burned oil, I know you're not maintaining and changing the grease properly for the customer."
While numerous elements go into making the perfect plate of hot wings, the thing that sets every restaurant apart is their sauce. In Memphis, honey gold is the hometown favorite, a common sight on menus across the city. Of course, the taste can vary, but its distinct savory sweetness is always at the base of every version.
On the south end of the city, the Wing Factory is one of the better-known establishments. that helped popularize the city's hot wing culture, serving an assortment of excellent sauces. Their most popular sauce, Orange Mound, is an ode to the community that keeps the family-run restaurant afloat.
"You know, we're in Orange Mound, so let's get us some Orange Mound wings," says Erica Webber, daughter of the owner. She describes it as a "citrus flavor with a honey gold taste to it."
To find the originator of signature Memphis wings, all roads lead to Crumpy's, a no-frills eatery that serves its wings with homestyle sides like seasoned French fries and fried green tomatoes. Crump developed his first marinade as a young boy, working at a local restaurant and experimenting with different blends of seasonings and sauces.
"We used to take hot sauce and melt butter in it and then make it real thick," says Crump. Once his manager found out, he said that Crump's wings would be the new recipe moving forward. Since then, Crump moved on and established Crumpy's, where he would make his signature hot wings that became beloved by the city.
Crump sees his restaurant growing into a thriving franchise; he currently has one location in Atlanta and is working on a second in Las Vegas. He wants to create a legacy for his family, showing his children that Black people can grow and run their businesses.
"For a Black man, we still deal with a lot of racism," he says. "For years, people thought Crumpy's was white-owned."
There is no one way to describe Memphis. In a single day, you can dance on Beale Street, pass historic sites connected to Black liberation, and visit famous studios where notable musicians changed the way we define American music. For the wing masters of Memphis, their legacy doesn't just stop at wings; they're preserving vital community.
"I'm just famous for wings," says Crump. "But wings is just a corner of this table."