This week’s recommendations include what might be the best chicken wings in L.A., and a drive to Simi Valley for BBQ.
I’ve probably spent hundreds of dollars on various 25- and 50-cent cups of sauce at restaurants over the last decade. Show me a condiment and I’ll show you a dozen things to put it on.
The door of my refrigerator is a tightly packed mixed bag of squeeze bottles and jars of all shapes and sizes. Under the lids and caps are mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, spicy barbecue sauce, honey mustard, Buffalo sauce, ranch, Buffalo ranch, a variety of spicy mustard, vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, every condiment from Kuya Lord, about a dozen jars of chile crisp and a plastic bottle full of Italian dressing from Bay Cities that I filled myself with many, many tiny containers from the deli. I squeeze it on all my homemade sandwiches.
Some of the most coveted condiments, including a cooking sauce from Noma, the Kogi BBQ truck sauces, the Dino’s Famous Chicken sauce, Jitlada hot sauce and Alta Adams’ spicy ranch, are now available to use at home.
This week (every week), condiments are king. The following recommendations include wings drenched in Boss Sauce, otherwise known as your new favorite condiment. And barbecue dressed with 24 karat gold.
Wings with Boss Sauce from CJ’s Wings
Have you heard of Boss Sauce? Boss Sauce sounds like something you might find in the appetizer section of a menu at a chain restaurant that serves more appetizers than entrees and a giant, undercooked cookie for dessert. It’s an actual branded sauce, first bottled in the early ’80s in Rochester, N.Y. It’s advertised as a “gourmet after-sauce,” and you’re meant to dip just about anything and everything into the rust-red condiment.
Imagine your favorite vinegar-laced hot sauce but a tad sweet, spiked with lemon and dialed up with mustard seeds. It’s a fervid condiment, with more punch and tang than Buffalo or barbecue. It leaves your nose running, your lips buzzing and your fingernails stained. It’s the key to some of the best wings in Los Angeles, found at CJ’s Wings, a tiny storefront on Pico Boulevard in Mid-City.
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Cornelius Harrell Jr. grew up eating Boss Sauce in Rochester and was confused and dismayed when he moved to Los Angeles for college and couldn’t find the sauce.
“I thought Boss Sauce was everywhere,” he said during a recent call. “Back home it’s like ketchup. It’s in every major store.”
Harrell Jr. needed his Boss Sauce, so his mother sent him a steady supply of care packages. “My mom said, ‘I’m shipping you too much sauce, you have to figure out how to pay for this,’” he said.
After college, Harrell started selling dinners out of his apartment. He fried wings in a small pot and drenched them in Boss Sauce for friends. His cousin John Wyche, another Boss Sauce fan, came over one weekend to try the wings (he was stationed at Camp Pendleton). Within two weeks, the cousins came up with a concept for CJ’s Wings (the “C” is for Cornelius and the “J” for John) and Wyche got to work securing the exclusive distribution rights to the sauce on the West Coast.
Harrell and Wyche opened a now-closed restaurant in Altadena, a food truck and most recently, a restaurant on Pico Boulevard. From day one, the entire business has been centered around Boss Sauce and breaded and broasted wings.
At CJ’s, the wings are marinated in a dry rub overnight, coated in seasoned flour then cooked in the pressure fryer, also known as a broaster. The chicken is lacquered in enough sauce to drench the meat and drip onto a piece of white bread below that is so saturated, it disappears into a red abyss of Boss Sauce. Miraculously, the chicken stays crisp thanks to the broasting, which locks in the juices and creates an armor of skin.
It’s like eating chicken pre-dipped in all your favorite condiments in one, but because I’m me, I still spent $2 each on sides of ranch and blue cheese. I used a stack of napkins and kept reaching for the next wing.
The plan is to open a second location of CJ’s Wings in Carson this summer. The space will have ample seating, a front patio, an area for private parties, a place to park a food truck and plenty of jars of Boss Sauce.
“We’re trying to put a wing in everyone’s mouth,” Harrell said.
Sounds like a good plan.
Barbecue from Zef BBQ
A barbecue enthusiast friend once told me that if the barbecue is good, skip the sauce. For the most part, I agree with him. Unless we’re talking about Zef BBQ.
Logan Sandoval’s pandemic garage pop-up turned tiny kitchen operation in Simi Valley makes some of my favorite brisket and pork belly burnt ends in the country. Like many chefs around the country, Sandoval lost his job at a major hotel chain in March 2020. He and his wife, Anna Lindsey, and their young daughter moved in with his parents in Simi Valley. As someone who says he “likes to do hard things,” Sandoval spent the better part of the last four years teaching himself how to cook brisket. Lindsey also lost her job in 2020, and the couple needed an income. They decided to start selling barbecue out of his parents’ garage. By April 4, they launched Zef BBQ and sold their first two briskets.
Where to find the best brisket, ribs, pulled pork and sides in and around L.A.
Sandoval’s brisket earned an early, enthusiastic following and soon, Zef BBQ was operating out of library parking lots along with the garages and front lawns of some of its customers.
“People would make the mistake of rolling through the line and offering a place,” Sandoval said. “I was like, ‘I’ll see you next week.’ If you offered some sort of charity or anything I would be the first one to take it.”
Sandoval says he seasons his brisket like he would a steak, piling on granulated garlic and onion powder (and sometimes Montreal steak seasoning). The meat is smoked for around 13 hours with California red oak. You can taste the onion and garlic in the crusty jet-black bark, the meat is beautifully marbled with fat and there’s just a whisper of smoke. I will happily eat slabs of his brisket with no adornment, but he also makes two varieties of barbecue sauce, both stellar.
The Zef BBQ sauce looks like the tomato-based red stuff you might be used to. It’s almost tart and not too sweet. Thick but not exactly sticky. By the second bite, the chile flakes kick in, then the ginger, lemongrass and the distinct, slightly sweet taste of cooked-off mirin.
The 24K sauce is aptly named. It’s a Carolina-style mustard sauce with a deep golden color. Sandoval whips in pickled mustards, adding texture and tiny pops of acid.
He uses both sauces to braise his pork belly burnt ends, turning the squares of pork into the equivalent of meat candy. He sells the meat on its own or sometimes tucked into a variation on a banh mi sandwich. His barbecue-based menu changes with each pop-up, and it’s grown to include burgers, Peking duck, homemade Spam, congee, curries, rice bowls and cold Sichuan noodles.
“I just started doing weird s— and it works,” he said. “People like it.”
After working for a major hotel chain for years, Sandoval says he was itching to be creative. The name Zef was inspired by Die Antwoord, a hip-hop group from South Africa.
“Zef to this hip-hop group meant you do whatever you want to do and don’t care what people think about you,” Sandoval said. “When I started cooking all of these different kinds of foods, I didn’t have to adhere to anyone else’s standards anymore.”
With that sentiment in mind, I bought 8-ounce containers of both sauces with my order. I used my leftovers throughout the week, brushing them on chicken thighs, potatoes, cauliflower and even pizza.
Where to eat now
CJ’s Wings, 5068 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 452-9146, cjswings.com
Zef BBQ, www.zefbbq.com
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