On July 30, 2020, the Los Angeles Clippers lost to the Lakers, 103-101. Some have suggested this defeat had to do with the absence of the Clippers guard Lou Williams, who broke the N.B.A.’s Covid protocol in order to stop by Magic City, a strip club in downtown Atlanta. Williams, an Atlanta native, was in town to attend a memorial service but had to quarantine for 10 days after being caught inside the gentlemen’s club. He missed a couple of games. A P.R. maelstrom ensued, and Williams was called “Lemon Pepper Lou” — a nickname he has since trademarked — because, he said, he was hitting the club for its lemon-pepper chicken wings.
Magic City’s lemon-pepper wings are among the best-known in Atlanta, a city that loves its lemon-pepper wings. The wings and the city’s strip clubs are culturally intertwined, both rooted in Atlanta’s rich hip-hop and rap scene and central to its social fabric. “Three out of every five people is ordering a lemon-pepper something,” said the general manager of Magic City Kitchen, which produces the food for the club, and who didn’t want to share her name for publication because, she said, she didn’t want her phone to blow up with people looking for favors. “They also want lemon pepper on their French fries; they want lemon pepper on their shrimp. It’s really a seasoning that they want on everything.”
The peach is famously the state’s fruit, but lemon pepper is the city’s soul. (As the former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms once told a reporter, “Lemon-pepper wings are Atlanta.”) It took a recent trip back to my hometown — a northern suburb of Atlanta — to realize how much of that soul I took for granted growing up.
It’s not that I didn’t know the wings, which extend out past the strip clubs and into mom-and-pops all over the city. My family ate them at various Korean restaurants, so much so that I used to think lemon pepper was Korean. There is a seamless convergence between Atlanta’s hot-wing culture and Korea’s fried-chicken culture: an emphasis on shattering crispiness and a balance in flavors, most notably the lip-smacking teeter-totter of sour and sweet. Sumo Hibachi & Wings, a Korean-owned restaurant in Peachtree Corners, Ga., makes an exceptional lemon-pepper wing. In the Korean way, its chicken stays crunchy long after its double-fry, and the lemony flavor comes from a sticky-sweet glaze that’s slicked with butter. “We use real lemon juice, lemon syrup and lemon-pepper seasoning,” Christian Lee, who opened the restaurant, told me.
But I spent much of my childhood driving down 141 and Buford Highway with my parents, passing clubs with large neon signs and not thinking twice about them. One had a sign that read “Girls Girls Girls,” and it was in the same shopping plaza as the Korean restaurant where we got our hot wings after church on Sundays. (My big brother, Kevin, recalls complaining to my mother, “How come only girls get to go there?”) Another, on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, was Oasis Goodtime Emporium; there is a palm tree sticking out of the A on the sign overlooking the highway. In high school, I sang at an open-mic night across the street from a rosé-roofed palace called Pink Pony. As an adult now, driving down these highways, I’m able to connect the dots between the food I knew then and the context I know now. It’s a satisfying sensation, like filling in a coloring book after years of only drawing the outlines.
Lemon pepper, canonically, isn’t just lemon and pepper. Commercial blends, which are what most restaurants use, are sweet from sugar, tart from citric acid and savory from powdered onion or garlic (or both). But the joy of making your own blend at home is that you can customize it to your taste, and the scent alone is worth it. Magic ensues when you rub lemon zest and black pepper together with your fingers: The lemon gains the muskiness of the pepper, and the pepper takes on the fragrant balm of the citrus.
As there are many interpretations of lemon-pepper seasoning, so, too, are there many interpretations of lemon-pepper wings. At J.R. Crickets, the most popular order, “lemony pepper wet,” refers to a Buffalo-style wing sauce dusted with lemon-pepper seasoning, which tempers the heat. (This is the famous chicken-wing order that was referenced on the TV show “Atlanta” in 2016.) When I picked up my 10-piece at the Briarcliff Road location on a Sunday, locals were gathered around the many television sets, watching the Falcons game. At American Deli, the same order is more lemon-forward, with a glistening sauce that is both buttery and sharp. It doesn’t hurt that these wings shine gold from a little turmeric.
You don’t have to limit lemon pepper to wings. Rubbed on salmon steaks or dusted on thinly sliced bulgogi beef before it hits the grill, lemon pepper is a secret weapon. It tastes good on pizza too. Matthew Foster was on the road working in entertainment production before the pandemic landed him back home in Atlanta, where he was born and raised. He started Phew’s Pies while in quarantine and got noticed on Twitter for his first creation, a lemon-pepper wet pizza: a pie with lemon-pepper sauce and pieces of chicken drumettes atop the cheese, with two air-fried lemon-pepper flats, or wingettes, in the center. This concoction came to him when he was “thinking about my culture, African American culture,” he said, and asking himself questions like: “What would we like to see on pizza? And how would we do pizza? How would the South do pizza?” Foster calls his pies “metropolitan” — Neapolitan in their roots, but influenced by the culture and flavors of Atlanta. “I’ve been eating lemon-pepper everything since I was a child,” he said. “It’s a comfort thing and reminds me of home.”
It’s no wonder that Magic City Kitchen’s tagline for its food is “The reason you are here.” In Atlanta, lemon pepper is queen. And whether you’re going there for the wings or for the show, there’s a chance you’ll see Lou Williams, the Clippers guard. He has since been drafted by the Atlanta Hawks.
Recipe: Lemon-Pepper Chicken Wings