"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.