Firecracker Wings at the Rock Elm Tavern
The Rock Elm Tavern has these nice, white cloth napkins. They come to you tightly rolled up, and snugly holding your silverware. The corners are tucked in such that they don’t flop open once they’re set down. They’re solid. Give me two of these and a chain, and watch me concuss myself with a sweet pair of nunchucks. Whoever rolls the napkins at the Rock Elm Tavern, at least by my eye, does an impeccable job.
Am I remorseful, then, when I send the napkins back looking like they’d just been used to clean up an oil spill? Not in the slightest.
For all that Plymouth is lacking, you’d be surprised how easily you can stumble into a good pile of chicken wings. This week, as my residency comes to a bittersweet end, I’m celebrating the great chicken wings of Plymouth and its vicinity. Some have heat, others have secrets, but nowhere can you show your work like you can at the Rock Elm Tavern.
The Basics: The Ulmus thomasii Tavern is the latest point in a path that began when owner Troy Reding began bartending at a TGI Friday’s at the tender age of 21 years old. He got the job simply by not having any bad habits, as he told me last year. The Rock Elm Tavern has been open since 2015, and has since then surged to the forefront of Plymouth’s restaurant scene (as in, because of the Rock Elm Tavern, Plymouth kind of has one now). They’re located in the spot previously vacated by The Eat Shop/Digby’s, by Dunkirk and Highway 55. You can find them on the website here.
RELATED: My interview with Troy Reding can be heard at the 7:30 point during Episode X of the podcast. He discusses his 25 years in the big-box restaurant industry, how he uses that experience against those companies now, his drinks of choice, the decision to open where a restaurant had only recently closed, and the creation of the menu.
Plymouth, as a collective body of work, is achingly bland. It’s expensive to live there; and, while there’s fulfillment in affording to live there, and it is a very nice place to live, it offers the spirit very little beyond that. Once settled in, you immediately set about finding other cities to shop at because Plymouth’s road grid is fucked. Turning left onto or off Highway 55 is like waiting for your plumber to show. It could be minutes before that green arrow, or it could be weeks. Unless you’re going to Target, you’re saving your sanity and driving to Maple Grove or Minnetonka.
You’ll explore other cities’ nightlife because Plymouth only has Cowboy Jack’s – and City Council has threatened to revoke its liquor license at least once. If it’s a happy hour with options you seek, though, the Rock Elm Tavern’s toolbox is nearly unrivaled.
They make good choices with the craft beers they bring in, and they’re offered at pretty good prices at happy hour. You can pick up local sleepers like Omni Brewing’s Lake Day Ale or Cosmos Brewing’s Martian Rambler Red Ale for $4 here, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by them. Nearly everything can be had for $4 or $5. Appetizers are $3 off at happy hour, which puts the chicken wings at $8 from 3-6 p.m. If you can wait until after 9 p.m., however, they drop to $6.
For the solo diner, they’re a meal. They roll eight strong, and you’re guaranteed at least one mutant drum that resembles Mark McGwire’s arm and requires having a chunk bitten off before it can even be dunked in the sauce cup. I’m not saying you necessarily need the sauce for these wings; but, if you’re like me and have a bleu cheese obsession, you need them to fit in the cup.
The sauces are pretty straight-forward. There’s a buffalo, sweet and tangy, bourbon barbecue, and a firecracker. I get firecracker. It was described to me as a cayenne barbecue recipe. It’s tangy, sticky, and sweet like a Southern belle’s kiss. The firecracker sauce can also be had on shrimp. I haven’t had it, but I would. My only complaint: the sauce isn’t even remotely hot. You’ll enjoy it, but it won’t be great material for your “Hot Wings and Hockey Moms” suburban food YouTube show.
They used to have these inferno wings I really enjoyed, but I haven’t seen them on the menu in some time. You’d have gotten a good clip or two out of those.
Going back to my napkin portfolio, I occasionally work with a Bleu Burger at lunch. It’s a hefty, juicy patty; it’s a serious helping of montforte bleu cheese; it’s greasy strips of bacon that hang over the sides, like a wizard’s robe sleeves; lettuce, because; and a roasted tomato aioli that commingles with all that bacon grease and all that bleu cheese and coats your exposed skin like a beautifying treatment mud.
A Bleu Burger commands a bathroom trip afterward to wash up; but, first, you wipe yourself off with that napkin. It turns pink-orangeish, collects rogue bits of cheese, and is undeniably wet by the time it’s put down. To have this cheeseburger when you have someplace important to be afterward is Peak Plymouth Adventure.
The burger section is where they have fun on the menu. You can get your heat fix with the “But It’s a Dry Heat” burger: spicy southwest rub, guacamole, ghost pepper cheese, pickled jalapenos, chili cheese Fritos (not a typo); or a chicken burger with soft brie cheese and fried apples. They’ve got the mandatory egg-laden hangover helper, a bourbon BBQ burger, and a $10 “Safety Adam” that’s a hamburger. For an extra buck-fitty you can “live on the edge” and add cheese. LOOK OUT!
They’ve most likely got a sandwich and a cut of meat to satisfy any appetite. They’ve got pasta, too, and they don’t get weird with the ingredients. That’s important, because few things arouse my suspicions the way off-the-wall pastas at a not-pasta place do. Assuming they can do the angel pasta without peas, I’d go for any of them.
A plate of wings will always be what brings me back, though. I could sit at the bar with them, examine the tap handles, and people-watch. I could relax by the fire alone on the patio. I could lurk in a shadowy booth and record podcast voice-overs. I know I’ll find a nice beer, I know I’ll probably engage in a great chat with my server, and he or she will probably remember me next time (it happened this week with Erin, ‘sup Erin!), and I’ll do all of this with a fine Wingmaster face.
Go in. Have a beer. Mess your face up with sauce. Wreck a nice napkin.
Knock yourself out.