The Lackawanna River isn’t orange anymore.
At least not here behind the levee in The Plot, a jagged patchwork of residential streets on the north side of Scranton, Pennsylvania where oxidized water once signaled industrial prosperity. This is anthracite coal country. Well, it was until six decades ago when decreasing demand and rising costs drove the miners into the sunlight for good. There’s still a small fortune of coal under Scranton, but it would require a large fortune to extract it without disrupting life above ground. So there it lies.
The silk mills, factories and railroads followed the acidic water out of town. Well, not all of the railroads. Two mainlines once connected The Plot to the ends of the world. Today, just one suffices as a truncated branch bringing fracking sand to the valuable natural gas lands north of the unwanted coal fields. Irony noted.
Tucked fast between river and railroad, The Plot radiates a solid working-class ethos, in a city where employment often eludes the seeker, presenting itself as an honest place where honest people make an honest living. Despite a long history of the Lackawanna River rising for uninvited visits, the neighborhood shows few signs of distress. The modern levee keeps spirits up and basements dry. Well-kept homes line the streets. In the summer, children-at-play grace yards in front of broad porches bedecked with toys, bicycles and Penn State accoutrement. Around each corner, light colored wood-framed houses glow from October to January with vivid decorations celebrating the progression of holidays from the macabre, to the thankful, the sacred and the renewed. The warmth of home permeates the neighborhood.
If The Plot sounds like Valhalla-on-Lackawanna, a Lake Wobegon of the rust belt, well… it could be. I’m not sure. My experience is not derived from evenings by the family fireplace nor beer-soaked summer afternoons on a friend’s deck. No, my direct experience with The Plot is limited to one thing: chicken wings. Hot, delicious, crispy — perhaps best-anywhere-including-Buffalo — chicken wings.
Hidden among the blanched temples of family life in The Plot, one house stands out from the others: the corner bar. Coal patch towns of eastern Pennsylvania once boasted thousands of homes-turned neighborhood pubs. A surprising number remain viable, oft featuring a musty room of scattered old men cursing at the evening news, nursing an 8 ounce glass of light lager with a shot, and picking hot sausages from a bar-top plastic barrel. But not here in The Plot. Melancholy is not on the menu at the humble white house on the corner of Grace and Brighton where barkeeps pour beers to the beat of classic rock while chefs fry up poultry history. This house is legend, chicken wing legend: JoJo’s at The Donkey.
I first walked through the door of 602 Grace Street thirty years ago when the restaurant was operating as The Donkey Cafe. Although well known to locals, this college student Jersey-boy felt as if he’d discovered a hidden tribe in the upper Amazon; a clan with deftly crafted cayenne pepper poultry art. My kind of people.
Back then, patrons entered the front door into what still felt like a domicile. Straight ahead, a long bar dominated what must have been the sitting room. To the left, smaller rooms combined to make a cozy seating area with direct access to the magicians in the kitchen. Initially, I was a bit self-conscious. The Donkey was so homey, so familiar to the regulars, who was I to wander into The Plot and enter their realm? These people had a palace on their street, and now some invader from the Jerz was walking right in the front door?
Let’s cut to the bone: there is only one way to make hot wings and The Donkey Cafe had it down. Meaty wings, but not so fleshy that they would be like chewy mini-drumsticks, were fried crisp and tossed in a selection of sauces ranging from the entry-level milds through tongue-scorching extra hots, I would start at “hot” and work my way up. If my lips weren’t swollen purple by the end of the first dozen, I wasn’t doing it right. And yes, I drank the leftover sauce.
After graduating college and leaving Scranton, The Plot and The Donkey were never far from my mind… and rarely too far for a road trip. I spent many a night on the Interstates leading to Scranton just to get my fix of Donkey wings. And then with flash of the fryer’s power switch, they were gone. The grease congealed. The taps ran dry. The greatest wings known to man — the reason chickens have wings to sacrifice for us — was no more. The Donkey’s door was closed.
Years later, over beers on a road trip to Northern Virginia, a friend casually mentioned that The Donkey had reopened under new ownership: same place, same wings. I don’t remember what else was said after that moment. I drifted into a hot sauce dream state. Could it be? Back at the hotel that night, a quick Internet session revealed it was true. All of it.
Today, operating as JoJo’s at The Donkey, the pub continues the tradition of a peppery poultry palace at 602 Grace Street — with better beer than I remember from 30 years ago. The wings are exactly as I remember them — normal size, crisp and full of flavor (I find myself going back to the Hot Garlic wings time after time).
If you find yourself adrift one evening and longing for a truly heart warming (and — if you choose — fire breathing) food experience, point your GPS to the north side of Scranton and hit the gas. Don’t forget to save a moment or two for a drive around The Plot. Take a good look, as right there between the levee and roadbed lies a crucial part of the American fabric: a neighborhood of porches and pride… a stick-framed community of families doing the best they can. A community that just happens to be the home of chicken wing lore. Savor it all. You’ll be back.