I spent an enjoyable Saturday with several other local food bloggers comparing the Buffalo wings at several local emporia. Upstate New Yorkers are passionate about their wings and everybody has their favorite place, which tends to also be the bar where they know the bartender and their friends hang out. Could there really be that much difference from one place to another? This was the question that burned to be answered.
In a word, no. Of the five places that we tried, four were so close on my scorecard that the winner was more a matter of checking off all the boxes rather than breaking through with something different and spectacular. And the worst place, a local chain that seemed determined to show us its indifference, was only a few percentage points below the best.
This isn’t surprising if you think about what goes into a basket of wings: usually 10 pieces, evenly divided between mini-drumsticks and “flats”, deep fried till the very fatty skin becomes crisp, doused in a sauce which is some mixture of melted butter and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, then served with a few sticks of celery and carrots and a dressing (usually blue cheese) for dipping.
The legend of Buffalo wings is that they were an improvisation with some unwanted chicken parts that showed up at an Italian restaurant. Notice how easy this dish is for the kitchen: all you need is a fryer and a few simple ingredients you probably have already. The juicy, fatty wings practically cook themselves into delicate morsels. Presto, you have a tasty bar snack that will keep people on premises instead of causing them to leave because they’re hungry.
By comparison, look at what happens with a dish like Korean Fried Chicken. Those same wings are brined, dipped in a cornstarch batter, fried, fried again, then soaked in a complex sweet and spicy sauce. I would challenge anyone who tastes the two dishes side-to-side to claim the Buffalo wings are better. But it’s not a choice we’re likely to see up here in the hinterlands.
For now, I’m happy for good companionship and the confidence of knowing that if I have a craving for Buffalo wings, I’m likely to get some pretty good ones.