If it’s pizza in New York City, po’ boys in New Orleans, fried clams in coastal New England, and barbecue in Texas, then it’s chicken wings in Atlanta. And not just any wings. With outspoken advocates such as rappers Waka Flocka Flame and Rick Ross, writer Rembert Browne, and even former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, it’s more or less official: People in this city love lemon pepper wings.
Increasingly, it’s a version called “lemon pepper wet,” a riff on the classic dry-rubbed lemon pepper wing that’s doused in a glistening splash of either clarified butter or buffalo sauce (depending on which wing joint you hit up in the city).
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Though Atlanta natives in the know had likely been customizing their own versions of lemon pepper wet at neighborhood wing joints for years beforehand, the phrase gained widespread attention in 2016 after appearing in Donald Glover’s FX television series Atlanta.
In one scene, up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi is treated by the cook at J.R. Crickets, a beloved chicken spot, to a secret, off-menu special described as “the lemon pepper joints, but [with] the sauce on ’em.” Paper Boi and his friend Darius unbox the wings with awe and joy bordering on tears. The scene crystallizes how Atlanta natives feel about their lemon pepper wings.
Lemon Pepper Wings Are All About the Lemon Pepper Seasoning
If a wing recipe can so captivate one of America’s sprawling metropolises, it’s worth trying at home.
Our recipe is unapologetically wet, taking cues from both the buffalo-based wet sauce and the butter-based style, with every decision made to hype the star of the show: that bright, zesty lemon pepper.
Lemon Pepper WingsMake our version of Atlanta's favorite wings at home.
The bedrock of the recipe is a freshly crafted, homemade lemon pepper seasoning blend that’s pantry‑friendly and comes together quickly and easily. Microwaving grated lemon zest dehydrates it in record time (while retaining its vibrancy), making it shelf-stable and easy to crumble into a complex rub whose other primary ingredient is coarsely ground black pepper.
Granulated garlic, onion powder, coriander, cayenne, and sugar (to balance the pepper) round out the flavor profile while a bit of turmeric adds depth and shades the whole thing bright yellow, reinforcing the visual appeal of the lemony wings.
Any Atlanta restaurant or cook who makes these wings has their own version. Here's ours.
Lemon Pepper Seasoning
- 3 tablespoons grated lemon zest (3 lemons)
- 1 tablespoon coarsely ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon citric acid (optional)
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Spread lemon zest evenly on plate and microwave until dry and lemon zest separates easily when crumbled between your fingers, about 2 minutes, stirring halfway through microwaving.
- Combine pepper; salt; granulated garlic; onion powder; coriander; sugar; citric acid, if using; turmeric; cayenne; and lemon zest in bowl. Set aside. (Seasoning can be stored in airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.)
Besides perfecting our lemon pepper seasoning, we achieved our ideal lemon pepper wings by incorporating a couple of unconventional steps into our recipe:
- Most wings in Atlanta aren’t dredged in flour before frying, but we liked how the light, crisp coating gave the copious sauce something to cling to.
- Tossing the uncooked wings in a mix of lemon juice, salt, and pepper not only seasons them but also hydrates the coating of cornstarch, flour, and baking powder, ensuring that the wings fry up crispy and crunchy.
After 10 minutes bubbling away in 375-degree oil, the wings emerge golden and ready for a toss in lemon pepper seasoning and that special sauce: rich melted butter, a hit of fresh lemon juice, and Frank’s RedHot sauce for kick. Touches of mayo and honey bring not only tang and sweetness but also gloss and body to the sauce, helping it cling to the crispy wings and providing the glorious glow they need to be worthy of the name “lemon pepper wet.”
The wings, frying and getting sauced
So the next time you gather with friends and loved ones (or simply can’t go on without a batch of quality, freshly made wings), serve these up crispy and hot. (True confession: They’re also really good cold.) You’ll understand what wing aficionados in Atlanta already know and what the rest of us are finally figuring out.