SCHENECTADY – At Ya Ya’s House Southern Cuisine, the drums-versus-flats debate is over.
Chicken has won.
“Chicken,” owner Amanda Thompson weighed in on her bone-in chicken wing of choice. “Yeah, I like chicken.”
She’s not alone.
“And you will get that from anybody who is here,” Thompson continued. “They’ll say chicken and they don’t really care. Give them a whole thing, and if it comes out all flats, OK.”
Sauce — in particular, a mild, nectarous glaze reminiscent of Thanksgiving — has played a pivotal role in the downtown Schenectady restaurant’s popularity for more than a year. The 60-year-old owner described it as the same type of sweet and salty kick marketed in chocolate-covered potato chips.
Sweet potato wings, the restaurant’s flagship dish, contain 12 ingredients. Expect sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon. Expect high-end yams. Expect real butter and vanilla.
Ya Ya’s hasn’t sacrificed any ingredients despite food costs dramatically rising within the past two years. Wing prices soared 40% between 2021 and this past February. Gradually they have retreated to $1.68 per pound, as of August.
Consistency when preparing pricey ingredients eventually pays off, Thompson explained.
“So when you’ve got a signature, you’ve got a signature,” Thompson said. “And it’s very expensive to make it because it’s made with top ingredients.”
By request, Thompson and family (her daughter, son and husband also work there) will pour the sauce on chicken thighs and breasts.
She doesn’t anticipate much local competition in the sweet potato sauce market because, according to her, creating homemade candied yams is a heavily specialized part of the process. Yams are a variety of sweet potatoes.
“I know no one else does it because even if they did, there’s no way they’d have my recipe,” Thompson said. “They don’t have a clue.”
The sweet and salty mix has its origins in the restaurant’s longtime dinner preparation. Some of the sauce covering the candied yams would spill over the fried chicken or fish dinners. Thompson’s son-in-law recommended marketing the sauce infused with chicken for years.
Thompson didn’t consider moving forward with his suggestion until down time opened up at the height of the pandemic in 2020. She began serving sweet potato wings in June of 2021.
Some customers don’t call it by name.
“ ‘Can I have your sweet and salty chicken?’” Thompson said, imagining a customer’s order. “And I’m still like, ‘sweet and salty chicken?’ ”
In September, Ya Ya’s sweet potato wings broke an event record at the annual Schenectady Wing Walk by capturing one-third of all votes from a crowd of 1,400 attendees. The wings attracted scores of new patrons, including many who had for years walked past Ya Ya’s on their way to Proctors.
Customers have told Thompson they originally confused the southern-style joint’s name for an East Asian eatery.
“They really think that it’s a Chinese restaurant and they don’t even consider coming across the door,” Thompson said.
Ya Ya’s is among a small list of popular Southern-style restaurants in the Capital Region including Hattie’s in Saratoga Springs, and Allie B’s Cozy Kitchen and Kitchen 216, both in Albany. Hattie’s is the oldest by far, having opened in 1938.
Southern transplants have taken kindly to Ya’s Ya’s soul-food flair. Each week about 10 to 20 patrons from the South or familiar with the region will comment on Thompson’s dishes.
“The first thing they’ll say is, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it,’ ” Thompson said. “ ‘I found something that’s very close to somewhere in South Carolina or New Orleans, or you know, Tupelo, Mississippi,’ or something like that.”
Thompson’s roots go back to Laurel, Mississippi, a city roughly 40 minutes from New Orleans. She moved north closer to her family when she was 10 years old.
During her adult life, Thompson has worked as a store manager for Filene’s, Macy’s and eventually Walmart. On the side, she helped out at her father’s 30-year Albany restaurant, Big John’s. Tired of traveling an hour back and forth on the Northway to her retail job and looking for a change of pace, Thompson decided to take a whack at the restaurant business with her own vision.
Ya Ya’s first opened on Lafayette Avenue in 2016. The operation gradually gained a following for its ribs and oxtail recipes.
But there was a twist.
Thompson had to vacate the space a year later after the landlord, who assumed Ya Ya’s sold sandwiches, objected to the restaurant frying food. Thompson, who also serves as a pastor, briefly operated out of New Day Christian Empowerment Center’s basement on Chrisler Avenue.
A “God-fearing” person, she prayed for a sign. One day, while looking for a new space, a storefront, the site of Hot Spot Jamaican restaurant, stood out. It was still occupied, but Thompson kept revisiting it until finding boxes packed up at the front door.
She asked the landlord if the spot was available. The rest is history.
“I really just believe in [signs], Thompson said. “And I said, there’s got to be a sign and it’s got to stick out, so it almost bumps you right in the face.”
Thompson is open to the possibility of another dish eventually unseating sweet potato wings. Weekly specials such as toasted almond wings, she said, are part of the operation’s continual experimentation.
“We’re still thinking of sauces all the time,” Thompson said.