Ain’t no thing but a chicken wing

Icehouse’s chicken wings are a Southern delight.

A plate of chef Matthew Bickfords barbecue wings awaits service at Icehouse on Monday.

Lisa Persson

A plate of chef Matthew Bickford’s barbecue wings awaits service at Icehouse on Monday.

Grant Tillery

Not everyone likes chicken wings. Some dismiss them as lowbrow, have distaste for finger food or won’t eat them for ethical reasons.

For their own sake, here’s hoping that one day they see the light and can enjoy some succulent bird.

Chef Matthew Bickford of Icehouse is the man to change the haters’ minds. He knows how to make damn good wings, which garnered national acclaim with a recent shout-out in Epicurious’ rundown of “America’s Best Chicken Wings.” A different version of Icehouse’s wings was also touted as the best in town by City Pages in 2013.

What sets Bickford’s wings apart is the product and construction, and listening to him wax poetic on the art is akin to a crash course from “How to Build a Better Chicken Wing for Dummies.”

First and foremost, a good wing starts with a good chicken.

“We use all-natural chicken wings,” Bickford said. “They’re not from some feedlot, [from] some nasty chicken that’s been pumped with a bunch of different drugs.”

But natural chicken is not the sole indicator of good wings. It all boils down to how they’re prepared. Bickford’s process elevates the finger food from pedestrian to phenomenal.

“I like to cure the wings, which imparts flavor and helps with the texture,” he said. “[It] tightens up the structure.”

After curing, the wings are slow-roasted.

“[They’re] one of those things that you can cook for a long period of time at a low temperature, so they’re tender and fall off the bone,” he said.

After they’re slow-cooked, Bickford smokes the wings in hickory and then flash-fries them.

His technique is a stark contrast to how most wings are made.  Hormone-injected chicken is lackadaisically thrown into a deep fryer until it no longer resembles its original form. This method renders it flavorless and fatty — 1,600-calorie abominations instead of egalitarian delicacies. It should be called fried batter with a side of chicken.

Icehouse’s wings are barely battered at all.

“They’re not your typical, greasy, Buffalo Wild Wings wings,” bartender Dan Avila said.

A big part of this, beyond the high-quality chicken and careful preparation, is the presentation.

They’re small wings with heft — a dose of Southern comfort eschewing batter for tenderness. Barbequed carrots add heartiness, standing in for the celery associated with wings. Green tomato chutney is dolloped on top and is remarkably addictive, with accents of ginger and golden raisins. The wings are finished off with a thin barbeque sauce, swimming on the bottom of the plate. Hot pepper jelly coaxes warmth out of smoked tomatoes and homemade Worcestershire sauce.

In short, they’re wings for the ages. They’re wings with gravitas that would feel at home at galas and Super Bowl parties alike. They’re gritty yet elegant, devoid of Paula Deen influences.

These particular wings won’t be around forever, as Bickford cycles variations in and out of rotation (though they’re always on the menu in some form). Up next is a take on Hooter’s infamous wings, a “dirtball vice” of Bickford’s.

“My version is going to be smoked, then breaded,” he said. “[They’re] going to have blue cheese dressing and pickled celery.”

If anyone can make Hooter’s concepts haute, it’s Bickford. His breadth of imagination makes wings simultaneously urbane and rustic, and it elevates them beyond glorified bar food.


What: Icehouse
Where: 2528 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
Prices: $11 for an order of wings
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Sunday