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A Quest to Find the Best Chicken Wings in Chicago

Our dining critic embarks on a primal, sauce-slicked journey to discover poultry greatness.

Gators Wing Shack wings—nearly flawless, but not the best.   Photos: Jeff Marini

While researching this story at a local watering hole, I caught sight of a man in the mirror behind the bar. An oblivious middle-aged schlump indigenous to these parts, he was busy tearing flesh from bone, lips curled into a rictus of orange ecstasy, gristle and ligaments dangling between his incisors. And I recoiled in horror … for the man was me.

Short of a Mafia hit or a failed Heimlich, it’s difficult to imagine witnessing anything more traumatic in a restaurant than an American male eating chicken wings. And yet we cannot stop eating them. I’m a dining critic who is supposed to be concerned with, say, langostinos à la plancha, but I cannot stop eating wings. This month, I didn’t have to. My goal was twofold: (1) to seek out Chicago’s best and (2) to understand why the cheapest part of the blandest meat continues to exert such a freaky hold on me.

For most Americans, chicken wings mean Buffalo wings. Invented in 1964 at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, they’re generally deep-fried, free of breading, smeared in a vinegary orange concoction of hot sauce, cayenne, and butter, and usually cooled with blue cheese or ranch dressing. It seems important to mention that the Bills won their first American Football League title in 1964, and their second the following year—the city’s last major championships of any kind. If the wing was Buffalo’s deal with the devil, the rest of us have reveled in the town’s damnation, because it spawned a cosmically brilliant flavor profile. “You have rich, fatty, spicy, acidic flavors coming at you, so it just makes sense,” says Graham Elliot, a chef and Food Network host. “It’s also a gateway drug to the beauty of dark meat.”

A Fifty/50 drumette
A Fifty/50 drumette

Of course, you can devour Buffalo wings at any number of Chicago sports bars. Many of these wings are interchangeable: scrawny poultry parts sourced from Lord knows where, fried in old oil, and drenched in enough doctored Frank’s RedHot to satisfy beer drinkers more focused on the game than the plate. Pick a bar and the wings are probably OK. I’m thinking of places like Monti’s (4757 N. Talman Ave.), a friendly Philadelphia-themed Ravenswood tavern that drowns its wings in so much cayenne-heavy sauce that they turn spongy and slip from your fingers. They’re no better or worse than the ones at Buffalo Wild Wings, a chain that, as the father of a football-crazy 9-year-old, I know intimately.

But really good wings scratch an itch that few foods can reach. Take the ones at Output Lounge (1758 W. Grand Ave.), a West Town bar awash in neon beer signs and framed Blackhawks jerseys. These wings, born of fresh oil, memorable spices, and perfect cook times, are lightly crunchy, meaty, tender, and blazing hot; the sprightly sauce is neither too thick nor too thin, neither too spicy nor too mild. Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap (41 E. Superior St.), an amiable tavern just off the Mag Mile, spikes its scallion-topped wings with such accessible, unctuous flavor that it’s impossible not to pick the drumettes clean, ligaments and all. (Some call the mini drumsticks “runners” or “stems,” which I don’t understand, because “drumettes” describes them to a T.)

Twelve pounds of butter and a hit of Tabasco go into each pot of the fresh-made sauce applied to the plump garlic wings at Gators Wing Shack (1719 N. Rand Rd., Palatine), an unassuming sports bar in the northwest suburbs. And minced garlic pushes the familiar Buffalo tones someplace deeper, more balanced, and more appealing. This especially works with the flat, two-boned wing part—known as the “flat,” “flapper,” “skateboard,” or “clothespin,” depending on whom you ask. Gators’ flats, tips included, have the perfect ratio of skin to meat and are nearly flawless.

But no one in Chicago takes Buffalo wings more seriously than Scott Weiner. Co-owner of the Fifty/50, a three-level sports bar in Wicker Park, he spent two years developing his wings. (“Wings are my happy place,” he says.) He came up with his own sauce, aged three months into a hypnotic honey-tinged cream that sinks into the crisp breading of all-­purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, cracker meal, and a custom-made spice mix from Spiceland on the Northwest Side.

Some might consider breading a chicken wing cheating. That’s like saying Babe Ruth cheated during the dead-ball era by hitting home runs. All I know is the Fifty/50’s plump, hormone-free chicken stays moist after a dip in peanut oil, and the result is something approximating model finger food: meaty, comforting, and impossible to put down. It’s the wing lover’s Platonic ideal.

Wings from Mr. Brown’s Lounge
Mr. Brown’s Lounge

I began to wonder if it’s actually the Buffalo sauce that I crave more than the wing meat itself. After all, nowadays it flavors everything from potato chips to sodas. To test this theory, I checked out the seitan Buffalo “wings” at Chicago Diner (3411 N. Halsted St.), a vegetarian mainstay in Boystown. Similar in shape to fried potato wedges, the wheaty wings retain an appealing crunch after a dip in a Buffalo sauce. I’d order them again. But the experience is too clean, too clinical—no tearing with teeth, no licking of fingers. Yes, I yearn for Buffalo sauce, but the thrill fades quickly without the accompanying savagery.

Of course, Americans forget that other wing-loving countries have been doing the caveman thing a lot longer than we have. Chicago has a formidable buffet of international competitors. Wings Around the World (557 E. 75th St.), an ambitious takeout spot in Greater Grand Crossing, embodies that philosophy, offering 34 different styles, ranging from Indian curry to Canadian maple. Some of them are pretty good (honey jerk), others gimmicky (tomato-basil pesto), but the point is clear: The United States does not have a monopoly on the wing.

Safari Lounge (7124 N. Clark St.), a relaxed Ethiopian spot in Rogers Park, does great wings without making a big embarrassing thing of it. The Awaze wings, five lightly fried flats and drumettes in a heady paste of berbere, paprika, garlic, and ginger, are a lovely little taste of Ethiopia and a good deal for $5. At Mr. Brown’s Lounge (2301 W. Chicago Ave., 81 E. Wacker Pl.), huge, smoky flavors are conjured from the Jamaican jerk wings by grilling them long enough to let the scorching Scotch bonnet–fueled dry rub take hold. Mr. Brown’s flats are so good I found myself popping the smaller bone out of my mouth, Houdini-like, stripped clean of every morsel of fiery meat.

Since 1987, people have been making pilgrimages to Great Sea (3254 W. Lawrence Ave.), a dingy Chinese Korean restaurant in Albany Park, for its Hot & Spicy wings, a.k.a. gampongi. Knobs of inside-out fowl meat get pushed to the top of frenched drumettes that have been battered, fried, and wok-rolled in a secret tangy-sweet chili sauce—basically, chicken lollipops. They are superior to both chicken and lollipops. The owners of Great Sea recently retired, but they trained their successors to make the wings, and the acolytes have learned well.

Karen Lim, daughter of the retired owners, learned well, too. In 2007, she opened Take Me Out (1502 W. 18th St.), a bright chicken-wings-only storefront in Pilsen. Her Hotties wings are similar in style and flavor to Great Sea’s but stay crisper, the sauce judiciously applied and more caramelized. Crisp, a popular fast-casual hangout in Lake View, fries its Seoul Sassy wings twice, until the skin melts into the moist meat, then tosses them in a bracing sauce of soy, ginger, and garlic and serves them whole in all their double-jointed glory, so my teeth and fingers can commit the graphic acts of violence they so long for.

Wings from Dak
Dak

Del Seoul (2568 N. Clark St.), another fast-casual spot on a busy Lincoln Park thoroughfare, shows the danger of the give-the-people-what-they-want approach. The ridiculously crunchy K-Town wings sport a skin thicker than an NBA referee’s, but they’re drenched in a gloppy, cloyingly sweet soy/garlic glaze with the texture of Chinese-buffet detritus. A far more restrained version can be found at Café Orient 33 (4829 N. Kedzie Ave.), a pleasant strip mall spot around the corner from Great Sea. The battered and garlic-studded drumettes serve as a bridge between classic fried chicken and more exotic fare.

Which brings us to Dak. This tiny Edgewater joint opened in 2013 and recently made some renovations while streamlining the kitchen. The care that has always gone into the operation remains the same. Dak’s kitchen double-dredges each wing in a secret flour mix, pressure-fries it in canola oil, and then “regular” fries it, after which the drumette communes with a thin layer of vivid Korean soy-ginger sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Whether you order five wings or 10, you will have to wait a little while for them.

I tore apart wing after messy wing, and each one stayed almost eerily moist, the interplay between sauce and bird pure and seamless in a way that no other Buffalo wing approaches. Imagine stimulating a hidden spot in your taste buds that hasn’t tingled in ages, and doing it repeatedly, shamelessly, over the course of 15 minutes, and you begin to understand the feral pleasure of Dak’s wings.

No matter how many times I washed my hands afterward, trying to coax myself back to domestication, Dak’s tangy soy and ginger aroma remained on my fingers. Each whiff whispered: This is how chicken is supposed to be.

 

Ruby’s Top 3
 

1 Dak

1104 W. Granville Ave.
Dak’s whole jumbo wings with Korean soy-ginger sauce are fried twice—and they are perfect.

2 The Fifty/50

2047 W. Division St.
Multiple flours and an aged, honey-tinged Buffalo sauce make these wings deeply flavorful and impossibly crunchy.

3 Crisp

2940 N. Broadway
The batter of the Seoul Sassy twice-fried wings melts into moist meat under a volcano of flavor and spice.

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