After giving Stacey her choice of reviews last month, JC's number is up on this edition of Tomato, and he chooses the holy shrine of the Buffalo Wing. Quaker Steak & Lube.
Few things rival JC's love of cheeseburgers, but a close second, whether as an appetizer before the burger bell rings, or all on their own with a pint of ranch dressing in a soup bowl as support, are buffalo wings.
Now, this doesn't mean every hooterhead in the world who deep fries a nearly naked wing and rolls it in Tabasco sauce can please him. JC appreciates the art and variety of a quality wing in all it's wonders. Buffalo Wild Wings (formerly BW3) is very good for an easily-accessible chain, with a lot of sauces, good wings and consistency from location to location. Outback Steakhouse's spicy fried wings are awesome and very different from the standard sauce-spun variety. Everybody has their own favorite "local legend" about whose wings are best. After travels from one end of the country to the other sampling wings over a 20 year period, JC proclaims without fear of contradiction that the "Best Wings in the USA", as it's slogan exclaims, is Quaker Steak & Lube.
"The Lube" is best known in Western Pennsylvania and Northern Ohio, but in recent years it has franchised and now boasts 30 locations in 12 states--still, all but a dozen of those restaurants remain in Ohio and Pa. By chance, JC stumbled into the original location, a few miles off the Interstate in tiny Sharon, Pa., over 15 years ago and was hooked on the spot by the food and ambience. The first Lube opened in Sharon in the early 70's, in a converted WW2-era gas station. It was a "cook-your-own-steak" place, and the decor fit the name. Old cars bolted upside down to the ceiling, antique license plates, motorcycles and race-car memorabilia bolted to the walls, period gas pumps at the front door with pump handles for doorknobs and a creaky old wooden floor gave the place a unique feel. After a few years, the owners made a trip to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., birthplace of the Buffalo Wing, and got the idea to start serving wings as well. In the next decade, as they started winning contest after contest with their variety of wing sauces, the legend of Quaker Steak & Lube was born.
Our recent visit was to one of the new locations, near the Pittsburgh airport. The newer Lubes are very nice, but it must be mentioned that none of them have the authentic antique gas-station atmosphere of the original, which remains our favorite. Eating the great food surrounded by a real 60 year old service station and tons of legitimate antiques, and listening to the doors and floorboards creak like you're on Aunt Bea's front porch is cool, no doubt. The newer Lubes we've seen have a more updated slant with emphasis on racecars, motorcycles, and shiny mantoys, which is probably easier to sell and replicate on a franchise basis. Most Lube locations have car shows, bike nights and automotive-themed entertainment on a regular basis.
Still, to paraphrase the Bard, "the food's the thing". The Lube is the place to go, not only for great wings, but a wide variety of manfood. It's all good, and it's served in keeping with the automotive motif. The appetizers are nibbles like chicken fenders (tenders), stick shifters (cheese sticks), and dip sticks (fried zucchini). We chose the pick-up pickles (dill spears coated with Italian seasonings and deep fried, with a dipping sauce) and the O-Ring Ontenna, onion rings served around a telescoping car antenna, with portions sized short wave or long range. The rings are always crunchy and the pickles melt in your mouth. Other great menu items include award-winning Burgers, Baby Back ribs, steaks, hot rod chili and dozens of other items. All have catchy titles like the Lube Burger, Thunderbird Steak, etc.
The wings, however, are No Gimmicks Needed. The Lube's wings are always plump and juicy, fried to just enough crisp on the skin, and sauced just right. The wings are wearing the sauce instead of swimming in it, so you have the best ratio of meat/sauce. The sauces themselves are fantastic and totally distinct from each other, 20 in all, ranging from Ranch (a buttery flavor milder than Mild) to Atomic (for those you need to sign a release form). If you're in doubt, a handy scale on the menu lists the heat factor in order, using the Scoville unit measurement of chili pepper heat. Ranch clocks in at 90, Atomic at 150,000. For comparison, their regular hot is 3,000, and SuperCharged is 30,000. JC's favorites, and the ones he chose on this night, were Golden Garlic (2,030) and Parmesan Pepper (870). Stacey went with the "Thai'R'Cracker" (1,850) on this trip, although she shares an affinity for the Parm Pep's as well. All the sauces are good, but JC confesses he has never tried Atomic, although a sample order of 6 is available. As usual, JC ordered enough to bring home (since the nearest Lube to Louisville is 100 miles), and opted for a bucket of 50 of each, accompanied by a dozen ranch dressings. Stacey decided on a human-sized portion of 9 wings in the Thai sauce (Thai'R'Cracker--Ty-er--Tire--OK, pretty lame for a car pun.)
The Golden Garlic looks more like a regular wing sauce, a nice garlic taste with seasonings and some spice but not too hot, while the Parmesan Peppers are very different than you will find at most wing joints. As all the wings are, they are fried just right, but have a nice coating of cracked black peppercorn, parmesan, butter and seasoning that is just irresistable. The Thai's were good and gave Stacey a touch of the Oriental/teryaki flavor she likes combined with all-American food. JC plowed through about 3 dozen of his wings before tapping out, while Stacey had 2 left over to contribute to the take-home bucket. JC always gets sad as he eats at the Lube, because every wing he eats is that much closer to the end, which comes when he can barely walk or breathe.
The Lube has a full bar and many locations have theme nights, music and festivities--check out QuakerSteakandLube.com for info and a listing of locations, then find the one nearest you and worship at the altar of the place chickens hate worse than KFC!
QUAKER STEAK & LUBE