Family Secrets owner Reggie Littleton is so identified with one of his restaurant's specialties that he says people sometimes call him "Chicken Wing."
The tender, fragrant, jumbo-size wings are actually from roosters, he says. They're seasoned, usually by Littleton or his son Morgan, before being lightly dipped in batter and fried. "We cook with a lot of flavor," he says. "You can smell the garlic in it."
Though he grew up here in Richmond, Littleton draws much of his cooking inspiration from North Carolina, where he spent his summers at a family farm in Rocky Mount.
"We ate heavy meals for breakfast — fried chicken, collards, mac and cheese, pork chops — because we were going out and working on the farm," he says. "For dinner, we'd have eggs and bacon, sausage and grits."
And the nose-to-tail trend is nothing new to Littleton, who says he sells about 100 pounds of pigs' feet each week. At the North Carolina farm, his family consumed pigs "from the rooter to the tooter." He adds, "We ate everything that walked or moved or grew from the ground," including squirrels, rabbits and possums. "My grandmother used to make squirrel pie instead of chicken pot pie."
Opening Family Secrets was a longtime dream. During his previous career in IT network services at Capital One, Littleton used to doodle ideas for the restaurant.
But after 10 years, including eight in its current location at 5310 Chamberlayne Ave. in the Brook Hill Azalea Shopping Center, Littleton is looking for a place with more traffic, likely on West Broad Street. He left his first location at North Avenue and Brookland Park Boulevard after a drunken driver ran into a building support, causing the structure to collapse. And now that his catering and corporate business have slowed down along with the economy, Littleton says, "I need to be where I can be seen."
When cooking, he relies on his taste buds rather than recipes. "Nothing is written down," he says. "When I make sauce for barbecue, we have a cup and mix the vinegar, sugar and pepper until it tastes right."
And though he's known for Southern food, if he tries something he likes at another restaurant, he'll whip up his own version. He's been known to make Jamaican, Chinese and Greek dishes.
"Whatever your flavor or taste is, you're painting like you would with paint or watercolor," Littleton says. "I do my own style. My only competition is myself."
Except, perhaps, for Morgan, a 19-year-old culinary student at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College whose wrists are tattooed with "Family Secrets" on the right and a knife and fork on the left.
"He's good," Littleton says. "I created a monster. He's always competing with me."