It’s almost annoying at this point. Nearly every time I’m greeted with the dreaded “Where are you from?”, my answer of “Buffalo, NY” sparks one response: “You guys have the best wings, right?”
But it’s true – and not only is it true, but Buffalo’s chicken wing obsession has become noticed world-wide. While some cities pride themselves on their history, wildlife or even their success in the sports world, Buffalo’s one true love will always be their wings.
It almost feels as though in the last few years, the national spotlight has grown on our love for chicken wings. Wings are the first thing anyone from outside the area thinks of now when they hear “Buffalo” (rightfully so). In fact, after NFL wide receiver Stefon Diggs was traded to the Buffalo Bills in March, his first thought was of our world-renowned chicken wings.
The first thing I felt was pure excitement. I was like, OK., Buffalo, Buffalo, Buffalo … what do I know about Buffalo? WINGS! They got some of the best wings, right? I knew that for sure. I can definitely get with a place like that.Stefon Diggs, The Players’ Tribune
No matter who you ask, there’s no doubt that wings are a staple of Buffalo. However, a more refined debate takes place when we get into who has the best wings in the city. To outsiders this may seem like a fun question to ask, but the reputations of Buffalo’s restaurants and bars are built and destroyed on their ability to provide their customers with a high-quality wing. This article will layout how I chose which wing reigns supreme, including weighing the key factors of Flavor, Presentation, Chicken and Heat. Make sure to take notes (foreigners especially), and don’t blame me if you get kicked out of a party for suggesting to order Buffalo Wild Wings.
Now, I’m sure your first question is going to be “Who the hell is this guy?” or “Why should I value his opinion?”… which thinking about now is fair but I can assure you my chicken wing pallet is more than matured. If we take an average consumption of 10 wings per week (which is conservative), I’ve eaten at least 5,000 wings over the past ten years. While only 10 per week is probably generous and most likely a deflated amount to preserve my reputation, there’s no question that my taste for wings is advanced. Although many of those 5,000+ wings have come from a handful of my personal favorite places, I can confidently say that I’ve tried ALMOST every highly regarded wing spot in Buffalo.
And while there’s no perfect formula to finding the true best wing, there’s a handful of factors that are taken into special consideration. Obviously your overall flavor is key, but the quality of chicken, the attention to preparation and a proper heat level are all critical to making the perfect wing.
As previously mentioned, there are a handful of places that are widely considered the “best” wing spots in buffalo. Because we can’t possibly compare every wing in the city, I’ve decided to narrow it down to five of the highest-regarded places:
I apologize if your personal favorite did not make the cut – there’s always next year.
Grading Scale Breakdown
As you can see, I’ve placed different significance levels on each factor. I think it’s safe to assume that flavor is about four times as important as the presentation, and also twice as important as the heat level.
Now let’s get started!
Maybe I should’ve saved this one for last considering its importance, but why wait. The overall flavor of the chicken wing is hands-down the most important factor when it comes to analyzing it. At the end of the day we’re human, and we find the things that taste the best the most satisfying. I’ve had wings outside of Buffalo that have been scorching hot, high quality chicken and were brought to me in a luxurious display, but nothing compares to the flavor you get from a true Buffalo chicken wing. Luckily for me, this is by far the easiest category to break down. Like I’ve said before, with experience comes a mature pallet, and there’s a clear difference between each of the five wings. Here’s the breakdown:
Ok so I already broke the rules. Not like there was a super-defined set of rules in the first place, but I used my executive power to declare our first tie. Bar-Bill has far and away the most flavor to it, taking into account its range of different flavors and attention to detail. Gabe’s Gate and Forty Thieves offer a similar, more traditional flavor, and I just couldn’t separate the two so I gave both a 10. Those three were all clearly ahead of Elmo’s and Doc’s, with Elmo’s having the slight edge. Tough blow to Doc Sullivan’s with a big fat goose egg in round one, but let’s see if they can bounce back.
This one’s tricky because we’re not necessarily looking for the “highest end” preparation, but the overall best preparation of the wings. There’s a critical component to keep in mind here: Presentation can include appearance AND efficiency. You could have the best wings in the world but if I have to fish them out of a sea of wing sauce (*cough* Duff’s *cough*) what good are they? Here’s the breakdown:
It was bound to happen at some point, but we have our first half-point. If there ever was a “no ties” rule, I’m officially throwing that out the window now. To be fair here, both Forty and Doc’s share the same owner, so both of their presentations are virtually the exact same. Although the winners got a mere 3.5 points, their efforts should not go unnoticed. Both bars’ “tray-style” service is far superior to the rest, optimal for both appearance and ease-of-access to your wings. Bar-Bill offers a traditional basket with a nice display of the wings surrounding the centered blue cheese, which is ideal for pictures but you run the risk of getting sauce on your wrists as you reach in. As for Gabe’s Gate, they’re presentation is outright awful. I’m not sure if they’re going for the “these are so good we don’t care how it looks” look, but it’s literally ten wings thrown on a plate with a capped-blue cheese stuffed in there somewhere – Figure it out.
Far and away the most difficult factor to grade. There have been many times that even an expert like myself is too caught up in the flavor and heat to really comprehend the quality of chicken. With this factor, you’re really looking for the perfect balance: The first bite should be like cutting butter with a steak knife, assuming the butter has been microwaved for 10 seconds and is wrapped in a perfectly-crisp shell. At the same time, the ends should be nearly if not totally edible (the less fat the better). Keeping that in mind, here’s the breakdown:
Surprisingly, we have our first category without a tie. I really tried to avoid awarding Bar-Bill the top spot here considering they’ve already won the most significant category, but facts are facts. Bar-Bill’s chicken quality is far better than the rest, and I almost had to bolster their top prize for this one but clearly I am loyal to the rulebook. Gabe’s Gate was a little misleading at first as they don’t cook their wings as “crispy” as other places, but overall were high quality. It’s interesting to note that while Doc’s and Forty share owners, there’s a CLEAR difference between the quality of both. Shouldn’t they be sharing their secrets?
Buffalo’s chicken wings have a reputation for being “hot”, but I think that’s just the association people have with wings, and therefore with Buffalo’s. Our final category features yet another balancing act. While you don’t want the heat to be overwhelming, drowning out the chicken and flavor, you also don’t want them to taste like you’re eating a plain chicken finger on-the-cob. I haven’t personally worked in a kitchen that serves notable wings, but I can imagine this is one of the toughest aspects to master. Here’s the breakdown:
As someone who traditionally loves super hot foods, ranking this factor was especially difficult for me. I had to take myself out of my own shoes and look at each wing from a “median” perspective on the heat scale. This really came down to “Who’s wings best aligned with their designated flavor”, meaning that the hot wings were hot, the medium were medium and so on. While I have a soft-spot for the breathtaking heat wave your tastebuds get after a bite into a Bar-Bill wing, a first-timer who orders hot there is in for a big surprise. My knock on Doc’s is that you just never know – I’ve had hot wings there that have rivaled Bar-Bill, but also one’s where I questioned if they gave me someone’s mild order by accident. Regardless, Elmo’s and Gabe’s Gate have the proper heat-to-flavor ratio.
And the Best Wings in Buffalo Are…
Let’s get right to it. After completing our four-part analysis of five of the highest regarded wing spots in Buffalo, here’s the final scoreboard:
The winner with 32 points – Bar-Bill Tavern!
Honestly there’s no surprise here. While Duff’s and The Anchor Bar grab the national headlines as the “originals”, any true Buffalo chicken wing-nut knows that Bar-Bill is the top dog. Whether it’s their small town atmosphere, consistency or the overall wing itself, Bar-Bill has proven to be the best wing in the Buffalo.
Disclaimer: I may be slightly biased as I (again may) have grown up in East Aurora and therefore have been eating Bar-Bill wings since I could walk.