Inside Mexico's Complicated Love Affair with Chicken Wings
“All the elements of wings—spice, fried chicken—all these things are very Mexican. Mexicans love their fried, spicy shit."
Photo via Wings Army
At first, I think Wings Army is taking the piss.
Our waitress leads us through a subterranean dining hall stocked full with camouflage, combat fatigues, polished silver stars, and vintage, white-washed anti-Reich propaganda. In the foyer, I make eye contact with a giant plastic-molded GI. He’s equipped with an M1 Garand and a beefcake grimace, ready to storm Normandy or Breslau, ostensibly to be rewarded with mango habanero sauce.
Wings Army has ten locations in Mexico City; tonight, we’re south of the metropolis and packed alongside the arterial Insurgentes Sur freeway. My friend Ricardo and I are here to watch Monday Night Football and down piles of wings, fries, and beer.
I originally met Ricardo as my randomly assigned roommate during my freshman year at the University of Texas. I’m from San Diego, and he grew up in Mexico City’s distant suburbs, but we got to know each other through the brotherhood of Southern-style wing bars.
They were foreign to both of us, the mounds of drenched fried chicken that left a kernel of heat in the corner of your mouth for hours on end; bazooka-sized jugs of Lonestar; an infinite number of TVs broadcasting an endless roster of sports. Austin’s Plucker’s, with its 23 sauces and queso-smothered waffle fries, remains a personal favorite. If you ate 25 wings tossed in their five-alarm Fire in the Hole sauce, they’d snap a Polaroid photo of you and pin it on the wall. It was decadent and depraved. It was home.
I watched Ricardo fall in love with a number of American abominations during his time in Texas —Chipotle bowls, tailgates, LCD Soundsystem—but nothing captured his imagination quite like Plucker’s. We developed, as grown men, a wondrous insatiability when we discovered that some parts of America serve up dinner-sized portions of winglets. Mexico City is one of the very best food cities in the world, but traditionally, it’s never been home to wing bars. Ricardo ate like he was on borrowed time.
Miraculously, when Ricardo returned home, Wings Army was there to save him. If it’s not the first Mexican-owned wing bar, it’s certainly the most successful. William Osuna, Wings Army’s marketing manager, reports 155 restaurants in Mexico, with additional lessees in Panama City and Texas. Owner Martin Santaella broke ground on the business 12 years ago, after a fateful trip to the US with his family.
READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to Chicken Wings
“They stopped in a restaurant to eat something when he met an old friend. They were talking to each other when Martin looked back and saw his two-year-old son had eaten eight chicken wings and his face was covered with BBQ sauce,” says Osuna, “In that moment, he realized he had to do something about it.”
The military pastiche makes Wings Army almost comically American, which pairs nicely with a menu stocked with Cajun picante, Hawaiian glaze, and honey mustard sauces. That makes sense. The NFL and Mexico are having a moment right now. Youth leagues are popping up all over the country, and in November, the Patriots and Raiders took the field at Azteca for the first professional game in over a decade. American football is intended to be enjoyed with the savory flush of lemon pepper, and the family dining industry is here to facilitate.
Last year, Buffalo Wild Wings opened a sparkling dining room in the heart of Mexico City, commemorated by this amusingly over-produced video. Wings Army, obviously, is scrappier and more wholesome than a coast-to-coast strip mall sports bar, (it remains 100-percent Mexican-owned, and Osuna proudly notes that in September, the restaurant represented their country in the National Buffalo Wing Fest.) But it still gives Ricardo mixed feelings.
“Mexicans have a bittersweet perception of the US. To a certain extent, we resent you guys, but we also admire what comes from there. This idea of progress, socioeconomic power—it all comes with America,” he says. “We see it with American companies down here. Starbucks in Mexico is a very aspirational brand. It’s not about getting coffee, it’s about getting Starbucks, which is just everyday coffee to an American. It’s the same thing with the Buffalo Wild Wings here.”
As Ricardo puts it, the cosmopolitan wave of wing bars in Mexico symbolize a long-running fascination with American wealth—or at least a crooked tendril of American wealth. The soccer culture here gushes like an open wound, but the NFL is borrowed and exclusive; it is your asshole Brooklyn friends who congregate at alehouses at 8 AM to watch Tottenham, only magnified under centuries of class disparity.
“Visiting the US is a status thing. People save their money to take their family to Disneyworld—even people that can’t afford it. It means a lot,” he says. “The whole idea of the NFL fits into the same thing. People who watch the NFL speak English. It’s weird. We didn’t grow up with it. It’s a sport that’s foreign to us, and yet we’re receiving it warmly.”
It’s difficult for me to imagine that wings and football—arguably the least cool of all of our institutions—could take on a fashionable veneer a few hundred miles below the border. But perhaps someday that can change. Wings are delicious and they belong to the world. Not the United States, and not Tom Brady.
RECIPE: Buffalo-Style Chicken Wings
“All the elements of wings—spice, fried chicken—all these things are very Mexican. Mexicans love their fried, spicy shit,” finishes Ricardo. “I’d be proud if someone married Mexican culture and Buffalo wings together.”