Where the Wild Things Grow
Buffalo, New York
If not for Anchor Bar, "Buffalo wings" might well have ended up named for some other city where an inspired person decided to coat the oft-overlooked wing in an addictive, spicy sauce. Instead, it was Anchor Bar matriarch Teressa Bellissimo who was faced with a crowd of her son's friends looking for a late-night snack on a fateful night in 1964. She fried up a batch of wings that would have gone towards making stock, coated them in a satisfying, spicy sauce, and changed bar food as we know it forever. Being first doesn't always make you the best -- and we wouldn't necessarily label these the BEST wings in America, but they unquestionably have stood the test of time.
It’s in a random spot in Newton that you wouldn’t really pass by unless you knew where you were headed. It doesn’t bother with frills or tricks. They know why you are coming there; after all, they’ve got the best wings in Massachusetts. I mean, look at their g-damn name. Anyway, the move here is to split between the honey hot and the regular Buffalo classic wings, and then wash it all down with one of their pale ales brewed by Harpoon. Then be prepared to talk about the Patriots. A lot.
The name says it all, really. These twice-fried Korean style beauties have a flawlessly textured skin that yields to a juicy interior and thoughts of tearing into another one before you've even finished the one you're presently dispatching. Get them BBQ style (a harmonious marriage of American and Korean flavor profiles) or go for the Seoul Sassy, a symphony of ginger-soy-garlic goodness. And if you're as hopelessly devoted to Buffalo as a poor Bills fan, they borrow their sauce from beloved hot dog stand Budacki's, and you'll find it makes for a hell of a combo with their frying game. The decision-challenged need not worry: they're used to mixed orders.
Scarsdale, New York
Just a short MetroNorth ride north of Manhattan lies Westchester County. It's through this wooded tract of wealth, privilege, and divorced bankers that Candlelight Inn (candleless and also not an inn) has shone like a beacon of hope since 1955. The wings here are meaty & generously fried to a crunch, then slathered even more generously with enough sauce to add to follow-up bites. They're cash-only, always mobbed, and surrounded by a never-ending glacier of strip malls, but when you first cross the threshold and the spicy tang of Chernobyl sauce hits your nostrils, none of that matters. You might even say those issues don't hold a candle... to... uh, nevermind.
Buffalo, New York
Set up inside an old row-house from 1864, Gabriel's Gate doesn't do anything that crazy with its wings. They just do 'em better -- not only better than the original, but better than almost anyone in the country. A single order of medium-heat wings is the move: crispy, saucy, and utterly enormous, these may not be Buffalo's first... but they're wings you absolutely need to eat when you're here.
Appropriately given this beloved Ohio brewery's moniker, the wings here are huge. Fat even, one might say. (Don't worry, they contain no heads). But they're not just large. They're also smoked. And tossed in a special salty/spicy dry rub before getting tossed in sauce. We recommend the tangy and fun-to-say bumble berry, though you'd be a dumbass to not taste the garlic Parm as well. The price point throws some people. At $6 for three, it sounds a little expensive. Then you pull a muscle lifting the plate, and those concerns will be gone. Once again, they're big.
Everyone loves a comeback story, but they arguably love an incredible plate of wings even more. Luckily, Vietnamese chef Thai Dang offered both with the 2017 opening of HaiSous, his first restaurant after the actions of an unscrupulous business partner forced the closure of his much-lauded prior restaurant, Embeya, at a tremendous financial cost. But enough about the past. Let's talk wings! These whole wings sit in a garlicky brine before being twice-fried, coated in a sticky, caramel-y fish sauce, and topped with even more flavor enhancement in the form of fried garlic and shallots along with some green scallions. You will undoubtedly come back.
When you visit Nashville, you go to Prince’s or Hattie B’s or, these days, even fancier spots like Acme, and you get some type of hot chicken -- that spicy dry-rubbed, battered, and deep-fried poultry that is as synonymous with Music City as cowboy hats and sweltering humidity. But once you’ve gotten that basic fried bird, move on to Hattie B’s platters of mouth-tingling whole wings. After they come out of the deep-fryer, the wings bathe in a mixture of oil and a paprika-cayenne-spice explosion. The result? The flavors soak deep into the crispy bird. Order ‘em Damn Hot with blue cheese and let your tongue dance with as much of that heat and flavor as you can handle.
The dirt on J. Timothy's is dirt. That's what this Connecticut institution calls its signature fried-sauced-fried-again preparation, allegedly named after the oldest player on a softball team of bar regulars. The result is delicious: that double-deep-fried shell finishes a few shades darker than hot-sauce orange and delivers super-crisp bites. The dirtying process puts sauce into the fryer, which mucks it up and necessitates frequent oil changes, so you know you're getting the good stuff. Timothy's was founded in 1985, but the building it's in was built in 1789, so it's pretty much as old as dirt, too. (That's it for sentences about dirt. Promise.)
In 1982 a guy named Paul Juliano opened a rickety chicken wing joint in midtown Atlanta, not far from Georgia Tech. He named it J.R. Crickets, and like any true visionary would, he branded it with a logo of an upright Caucasian peanut pretending to be a cricket in a tux jacket and no pants. Thirty-five years since Paul Juliano opened is rickety chicken joint in midtown Atlanta, his wings remain the stuff of legend. A mention on Donald Glover's Atlanta for a mythical flavor called "lemon pepper wet" only enhanced the profile. The classic Buffalo are unfailing, the fries are nice and salty without overkill. The skin holds up to the sauces, whether it's the thick BBQ, wet teriyaki, or lemon pepper dry (rubbed).
The DC area was the starting point for Bonchon's American invasion, so they know a thing or two about Korea having a way with wings, and many area chicken connoisseurs call KoChix the best in town. You can opt for wings, drums, or a combo, but no matter what bone structure you opt for you're getting a craggy, perfectly fried exterior that's perfect for soaking up sauce. A note on that front: The hot honey spicy here is not known to actually contain any form of narcotics, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Top Chef vet Edward Lee’s sibling to his much-acclaimed 610 Magnolia sports an array of animal skulls and antlers adorning the white brick walls, but soon enough the only animal remnants capturing your attention will be wing bones. But what happened to the meat? Well, it was tenderly smoked before getting crisped up and tossed in some chili-lime sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds and scallions, drizzled with Alabama white BBQ sauce, and brought to your table. You tore through them like a maniac. Then you blacked out. Get another order and try to remember this time, huh?
Sure, The Monte Carlo sounds more like a spot for caviar and baccarat than a go-to for wings, but at this landmark chophouse, a North Loop fixture since 1906, the only fussiness with its beloved dry-rubbed Beijing wings is the expertly balanced, 18-ingredient secret spice mixture. Tucked in a decidedly unfancy paper napkin-lined woven basket, the righteously crackling-crispy wings -- dry-rubbed, fried, and then dusted in more spice mixture -- betray hints of cinnamon, cumin, onion powder, and celery salt. Caviar is way overrated, anyway. Totally down for some baccarat, though.
It seems like a typical Irish pub you’ve seen in a lot of cities: Guinness and Harp signs outside, a long dark wood bar inside, full perfect pours of Guinness... you know the drill. But those wings. Good Lord, no typical Irish man cooks up wings this crispy and succulent and spicy and tangy. They call them Philly’s best on the menu, but they’re being modest: they just might be the best in the whole damn state.
New York, New York
New Yorkers love to complain about the disappearance of the "old New York", mostly because they want to give you the impression that they remember the city in its former state, despite the fact that they're about your age. That's called "being misleading", and it's the precise opposite of everything Old Town (established 1892) stands for. Its wings are nothing if not straightforward -- bathed in traditional Buffalo sauce, they're neither dredged nor spicy, and the meat, though ample, isn't as abundant as at some other spots in this story. Nevertheless, they're damn delicious, and this ancient Gotham tavern's unparalleled charm (even its urinals have won accolades!) makes them a national treasure.
Getting your wings at this Milwaukee joint takes time… mainly because each batch is prepped to order, and, instead of taking a dip in the fryer, they’re fired up on a grill. Luckily, the place is old-school gritty/charming enough that you won’t care. Order at the bar, snag a few beers, and kick back in the cozy neighborhood joint. In 30 or so minutes, the cook himself will deliver some of the best wings in the Midwest, grill-charred and loaded with flavor thanks to a secret dry-rub that manages to penetrate every fiber of the meat. If the Packers are playing, your wait’s going to be considerably longer. Thank heavens for good company. And Leinenkugel.
Brooklyn, NY and Portland, OR
Portland chef Andy Ricker’s pretty famous: he’s toured Thailand with Bourdain, written a book, and even starred in his own documentary. But the chef has nothing on his most famous creation: Ike’s Fish Sauce Wings, which laid the foundation for Pok Pok’s expansion to New York. They’re basically meat candy. Giant, full-wing meat candy. A marinade of fish sauce and sugar, these Vietnamese wings get a dose of garlic after the fry, coating the crispy, caramelized skin with an explosion of flavor unlike anything you’ve ever had. Get them with extra spice and a very cold beer.
San Francisco, California
The Richmond has long been an Asian enclave in SF, a place many went after leaving Chinatown and Japantown, which are both closer to the city center. And so you see places like San Tung all over that neighborhood, with Chinese characters in the sign and on the windows and that typical takeout Chinese menu with the numbers. But the wings at San Tung are by no means typical, and you can usually tell by the crowds lining up for lunch and dinner. So do yourself a favor and get the 72: the original dry-fried chicken. They have a wet version as well, but those don’t compare to the simple, ginger and garlic crunch of the dry ones.
A Bricktown institution housed in one of the Motor City’s oldest buildings (well, at least the original location is… they’ve got four now), Sweetwater ditches the practice of offering a bajillion different sauce options to specialize in only one, and it’s frequently heralded as Michigan’s best wing. Using meat straight from the Eastern Market, each wing takes a 24 hour marinade bath before arriving at your table cooked to perfection: not too saucy, with spice, salt, and vinegar permeating every bite.
Despite being way down there, Miami simply isn't in "the South". This point is pretty much indisputable unless you're trying to make it from within Swine, a two-story barnhouse reclaimed from South Carolina, reconstructed on the Gables, and populated with some of the finest practitioners of BBQ in the land. Obviously, pork is the party animal here, but the wood-grilled, dry-rubbed, oversized wings are downright mental. Served with Alabama white sauce, they deliver a glorious mishmash of Deep South flavors that's been M.I.A. in MIA ever since Tobacco Road closed and Yardbird (Swine's older bro) dropped wings to focus on its award-winning fried chicken.
Prolific James (and actual) Beard'd chef Tom Douglas clearly loves wings, as the hot pepper ones at his famed Palace Kitchen have long been considered Seattle's best. But he's topped them at his newest restaurant, where the Asian-inspired wings come in two flavors (salty caramel, serrano & garlic, and smoked chili with kimchi ketchup) and are fried about the same number of times you actually watched Wings: twice.