If it's on Melrose, it has to be trendy. This new rule of restaurant geography makes one expect something more than ordinary fast food from the Hot Wings Cafe, which opened recently on Melrose Avenue east of La Brea Boulevard. And the restaurant delivers.
First, there is the lively looking, peachy pink exterior. We saw it used as a backdrop for fashion photos, the model coming into the restaurant to change. Inside, the look is as plain as most snack places except for little, chic, arty touches. One wall is lined with paintings for sale and its opposite with clever pink window boxes (minus the windows) that hold handmade papier mache blossoms. Instead of lining up to place their orders, customers sit down and are waited on. They sip egg creams and seltzers, order wine from a small list and choose from a menu that reflects the current veneration of traditional and regional American food.
The slant here is East Coast--New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond and Hartford--and the food is simple, mainly sandwiches, salads and the Buffalo-style chicken wings for which the cafe is named. The wings come not only hot but extra hot, which means searingly spicy, and mild. For the benefit of those unacquainted with this snack, the wings are jointed, fried, coated with hot sauce and served with celery sticks and a blue cheese dip. Here they come in a basket with both carrot and celery sticks ($3.60 for 12 pieces, $4.15 for 16). The Hot Wings Cafe sauce was developed from a Louisiana recipe, which adds another region to the menu. The blue cheese dip is mild, perhaps too mild for those who like this strongly flavored cheese.
Today, when so much food overwhelms with cleverness, it is refreshing to experience plain, honest flavors. The Hot Wings Cafe turkey sandwich offers no surprises, no novelties. Its attribute is good, fresh meat. The turkey had finished roasting only about two hours before my sandwich was prepared. The Boston-style fish and chips surpassed that. The evening's batch of fish was being readied when I placed the order, and my share came straight from the fryer.
In my opinion, the potato chips are among the restaurant's best offerings. Called Buffalo chips, they are cut and fried there, which makes them better than anything in a bag. Onion rings are too greasy for me, but that didn't matter because the others in my group ate the basketful with an eagerness that indicated the rings were good.
Philadelphia-style steak sandwiches are another specialty. In a fast few hours in that city, I never got beyond a hotel coffee shop and some miserable scrapple. But a friend who attended school in Philadelphia said the Hot Wings Cafe sandwiches include more meat than he remembers. I liked the plain one, with provolone cheese and thin steak slices in a long bun. The sandwiches also come with various additions, including pizza sauce and peppers.
The Richmond-style hot ham and cheese sandwich indicates that Richmond people are very plain eaters. More to my taste was the Hartford-style grinder sandwich, a terrible name for ham, salami and provolone in a bun covered with lettuce and tomato salad in Italian dressing. It was a mess to eat, but the flavor was wonderful.
There are hamburgers, a fat Reuben, deli sandwiches stacked high with meat, a French dip and several salad plates. A poultry salad that included chicken and turkey was good, plain food. That may not sound imaginative, but remember that simple dishes demand the best ingredients.
Not everything is perfect. A friend said the vegetable soup was terrible, and the homemade cheesecake had a soggy crust. But if you eat wings as an appetizer, then go on to a sandwich, chips and the coleslaw that accompanies some of the orders, you won't need extras anyway.
Hot Wings Cafe, 7011 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 930-1233. Open from 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, from 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday. No credit cards.