Chicken Wings, or, Why People Know About Buffalo

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Buffalo Foods: Chicken Wings
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"Wings served 'wet,' or in a bowl of sauce, are the best we've had; far more common are ones that are dripping only grease when they're served, or arrive completely dry."


They are Buffalo's single best-known culinary export. They are almost invariably served less impressively outside of Western New York. And they are, for most former residents, one of several "must-eats" on any return trip home. Chicken Wings, literally the wings and drummettes of chickens, deep-fried and then soaked in red- or orange-colored hot sauce, can be authentically served mild, medium, hot, or in varying degrees of "dangerous," generally called "suicide" or "atomic." In mild form, little to no hot sauce is used, but with each step up the ladder, the quantity or quality of spice increases, going past "pepper spray in the face" level to eventually reaching levels comparable to drinking battery acid. Equal parts delicious and fun, chicken wings are most often served with bleu cheese, carrots and celery, which are used to bring your mouth's cumulative spice level down.

The Story: Buffalo may or may not be able to lay claim to the invention of the hamburger (in Hamburg, New York). And it will probably never be able to convince Manhattanites that it sells the state's best pizza, though it does. But it is unquestionably was the world's first place to get chicken wings, and remains the best today. No other city has the variety of chicken wings found in Buffalo, and no other place has made them so perfectly for as long as Duff's, one of several famous local wing establishments. Authentic wings are coated in a sauce that's almost but not quite syrupy in viscosity and potentially more dangerous to your digestive system than a spicy Thai pepper.

The Secret: Properly made Buffalo-style chicken wings need to contain quite a bit of meat, be deep fried to a perfect level of crispness, and then get dunked in enough authentic hot sauce that they can withstand tens of minutes of waiting before going dry. Once fried, the wings tend to absorb the sauce and become crispy again, which leads to unusual effects on both flavor and texture. Wings served "wet," or in a bowl of sauce, are the best we've had; far more common are ones that are dripping only grease when they're served, or arrive completely dry. You can choose the level of spiciness that's right for you; the milder you order them, the more likely they are to arrive dry, and the less likely they are to make a lasting impression. Getting an authentic hot sauce recipe is tricky, too; vinegar, Tabasco sauce, and butter are three of the key ingredients, all three found in Frank's Hot Sauce, but expect to fall short of authenticity in home cooking unless you practice.

The Mistakes: Oh failed chicken wings, let us count the ways you have been butchered by chefs. There's the baked chicken wing, which attempts to avoid deep-frying and invariably results in the wrong texture. The faux sauce, which someone thinks is "close enough" but really has nothing in common with the real thing save color or thickness. The thin wing, which lacks the meat of a typical Buffalo wing and consists mostly of fat and bone. The dry or greasy wing, which despite having been done properly in all other regards has so little sauce that you're mostly tasting oil and skin. And finally, hopefully never to be seen in your lifetime, the boiled, ketchup-coated wing, which we were served 15 years ago at The Family Tree in an episode that made us decide never, ever to return. So many places outside of Buffalo (actually, almost all of them) serve bad wings that you might never know the joy of the real thing unless you visit; there are only rare exceptions.

The Shame: The chicken wing was invented in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, which carried its reputation for great wings through the lives of its proprietors Frank and Teressa Bellissimo, but later sunk into utter mediocrity, more recently bouncing back.* Similarly, La Nova Pizzeria, a local chain that wisely took advantage of the Anchor Bar's failure to market its own products outside of Buffalo, produces greasy wings that pass muster as authentic but aren't anywhere near as delicious as Duff's.

(Note: When this article was originally penned in early 2008, we said - based on a recent Anchor Bar wings experience - that "visitors enticed by the place's famous reputation are as likely to get great wings here today as they are to meet Thomas Jefferson at his house in Monticello." While we still don't consider the place's wings to be "great," and they're overpriced, they were certainly better on our review visit in 2009 than they were before.)

The Alternatives: Owing perhaps to their creators' inability to nail the flavor of the best Buffalo wings, faux sauce wings became common outside of Buffalo at non-Buffalo chain restaurants such as Buffalo Wild Wings, Wingnuts, and Wingstop, with rare but notable authentic versions available at places such as Quaker Steak and Lube. Faux sauce proprietors, however, have elevated the concept of flavor variety to its own artform, giving customers the choice of Asian, Caribbean, and other flavors that range from sweet to salty, mild to fiery. The best of the non-Buffalo chains, Quaker Steak and Lube, does authentic Buffalo wings and alternatives equally well; Buffalo Wild Wings is a second-best local option.

Our Advice: If you want Buffalo's best chicken wings, do yourself a favor and ignore all the hype around other options; visit the Amherst location of Duff's. It's the place we keep going back to after trying every other alternative out there, and we've been recommending it to friends for decades. We have yet to hear a complaint. That said, be careful when choosing spice levels; our review of the Amherst Duff's explains exactly why. And don't expect other Duff's locations, such as the Orchard Park one, to be as good.

WingFest: We've subsequently published extensive coverage of the National Buffalo Wing Festival, held annually in a city baseball stadium, which spotlights a huge number of other traditional and non-traditional chicken wing options.


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Comments (6)

James :

OK, being a huge wing fanatic and purist, and based on your recommendation I ignored the disappointing visits to Duff's here in Toronto and went to Duff's in Buffalo ...and was similarly underwhelmed.

WAY too much sauce (imagine a small lake of sauce with gasping wings dog-paddling for their lives) left our medium wings soggy (pulpy?) and overwhelmed. I was hoping to see wings resembling your top of page hero photo, but was let down.

We were also put off by an oddly bitter, hyper-vinegary flavour that required one to simply believe there was tasty chicken beneath, since the sauce obliterated any actual other flavour that might have been present.

I agree that RedHot, butter and vinegar should be the stars of the show in any wing sauce, but this one overwhelmed the chicken and underwhelmed the diners. Frankly I've had better wings at Pudgies in Cornell, NY and at the (now-defunct?) Wing-King in Niagara Falls.

Soooo, what are your OTHER choices for authentic wings in Buffalo? I prefer a diner-dive-sportsbar atmosphere (not a chain) that serves a large portion of medium wings with a buttery sheen, a vinegary tang, and a nice bite of Franks RedHot.

Thanks!

The wings at the top of this page came from Bocce's, if I recall. Palladino's is another good pick. However, your comments on Duff's are surprising, leading me to wonder "which Duff's - Amherst or Orchard Park?"

The Amherst location of Duff's is better than the Orchard Park one; medium wings there should not typically come out soaked in sauce. Another pick that you might enjoy more would be the Quaker Steak and Lube. Clicking on the Chicken Wings tag at the bottom of the review will help you find all of the reviews here related to wing places.

Jeff Geckler :

Please make an effort to visit BarBill in East Aurora so you can sample what are, to me the best wings in the area (and I'm a native of fifty years plus standing) AND the best Beef on Weck you'll find since the demise of all the old corner bars that used to serve local favorites.
Duff's? I suppose if you're going to college locally and want to eat near the campus, it's OK. But please, do yourself a favor and at least sample an authentic kimmelweck roll (not that fake at Charley's) at BarBill as well as the "hot" wings.

We visited Bar Bill based on a couple of reader comments; the Bar Bill review is now online. They definitely make good wings, but they're high on crisp and commensurately a little low on richness of sauce - fans of crispy wings will really like them. On flavor, we'd pick Duff's in Amherst first.

Bob :

I prefer Anchor Bar over Duff's.
Anchor Bar wings have more flavor and you can't beat the atmosphere that goes with it (great live music). The pizza is good too.
Anchor Bar is actually located in the city of Buffalo. Duff's is on a suburban corner in Amherst, NY.

Bill Jasper :

Hi, caught your review...just returned from Buffalo yesterday. I can tell you that I had wings two times on different days at the Anchor...I attended Fredonia State in the early 70's, and hung in Buffalo in the early 80's, the Anchor's wings were vastly improved from their recent past shame...they were almost as good as I remembered!

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