The Contender: Canyon Sports Pub & Grill
A zero-frills watering hole in Chula Vista has a little magic with its Buffalo-style wings
Photo by James Tran
You can’t do a citywide search for the best chicken wings without finding yourself in a room with secrets, feeling conspicuously under-tattooed. The Canyon Club is an honest day-drinking bar for Chula Vista locals who don’t like the look of your veneers. Good bet a few regulars have a complicated relationship with police. But just as likely they help out at church potlucks and hold family and God closer than their beer—which they hold pretty close. The Canyon feels lived in, and possibly died in.
The owners have never refused a free promotional poster, lamp, napkin dispenser, or interior design tchotchke from the liquor industry. A Lowenbrau sign glows like it’s 1979 and tonight is kind of special. A St. Pauli Girl poster abuts a Corona Poster which overlaps a Coors poster. It’s absolutely wallpapered in multigenerational booze marketing. A Budweiser lamp over the pool table is an appropriate spotlight for the men who will take your money even though you were so sure you could beat them.
If you have to ask if this is the kind of bar for you, it isn’t. You either know you’re a Canyon Sports Bar kind of person, or you know you’re not. I learned to drink in places like this. I feel at home in its aromatherapy of snuffed-out Marlboros, its whisky humidity, its ability to freeze your unsavory behaviors in unspoken omerta.
The day we’re there, it’s 95 degrees and the central AC is a single fan, propped on a table. Eventually it starts to violently shriek, like a once-proud animal giving a predictably melodramatic soliloquy upon its death. The owner walks over calmly and unplugs it. That’s enough wind for the day, gentlemen. Find relief in the glass.
Never liked calling it a dive bar. That suggests a downward turn, life on the wrong side of existential gravity. Fact is, I can tell by the oil stains on the man’s hands at the bar that he worked harder than I did today. He fixed something for someone. Just because a bar keeps overhead low and drinks cheap doesn’t mean it’s operating in the catacombs of commerce. It means it’s a place with a roof to get an affordable drink in an American life that’s increasingly unaffordable.
Someone on their Yelp page took a close-up photo of the dregs of their double whiskey-Coke. Most of Canyon’s Yelp photos appear taken in various stages of liquid ideation, that chemically inspired state when you think, “I need to show the world a photo of my half-finished beer.”
The bartender is kind to interlopers, which is us. She asks if we want a small, medium, or large beer. I order the medium, and am presented with 22 ounces of Alesmith’s .394 Pale Ale. For the “large,” guess they just bring the keg to the table.
She lets us mix-and-match our wings, which most wings places don’t. The garlic wings catch garlic in its least heroic moment. Raw garlic, like in dressings, is fantastic and spicy. Deeply cooked garlic has a deep, intoxicating musk. But barely cooked or just warmed, garlic is caught in its awkward tween moment, and almost has a bad-seafood funk.
San Diego Mag’s digital media director David Martin recommended Canyon Club. We’re near to calling him a wing charlatan when we taste the original Buffalo style wings. That’s it. That’s why Canyon is often mentioned on “best wings” lists around town. With Buffalo, if you’ve got too much pepper sauce, the excess vinegar tastes like cleaning solution. Too little, and you’re just eating melted, red butter. Canyon’s is perfectly balanced, an emulsified spicy velvet. Not sure if they use Worcestershire—a Buffalo sauce staple, its anchovies lending rich umami—but that might explain the complexity of flavor you wouldn’t expect from a place with a lottery ticket vending machine.
The Canyon Sports Pub & Grill, 421 Telegraph Canyon Rd., Chula Vista