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We love chicken wings, but we love them against all reason. Any rational thought about them can only lead to the conclusion that they're a food we could and should do without. They're terrible for you, and they make you feel like garbage. They're a huge mess and lead invariably to Neanderthal table manners. With their slippery contours and hard-to-reach meat, wings seem like a food created not for pedestrian diners, but for professional eaters such as five-time Wing Bowl champion Bill ‘El Wingador' Simmons.
Yet still, with emotion and abandon, we eat. We do so for a nostalgic reason that will bias this review, so we might as well put it on the table right now: We spent a decade of our life in Buffalo, N.Y. Chicken wings — Buffalo Wings, rather — were born there, in 1964, at Frank and Teresa's Anchor Bar on Main Street, and they are an indelible part of the city's culture. You will not convince us that we will find a better wing than the ones they fry up on the shores of Lake Erie.
That said, there is some disagreement among Buffalonians over how to prepare the best chicken wing. Two sides of the debate are represented by a couple of New York establishments that offer different wing styles: the aforementioned Anchor Bar and a little suburban joint called Duff's.
The Anchor Bar focuses on the meat itself. Jaw-droppingly large wings are prepared with a recipe that ensures a moderate crispiness. The sauce is cooked into the chicken — very little is pooled on the plate you're served. At Duff's, on the other hand, the sauce is the main show. Although the wings have plenty of meat, they have to be fished out of the lake of hot sauce they've been drenched in.
We're an Anchor Bar fan, so we judge all other wings based on its strengths. (Dumping a gallon of sauce over meat is a sorry expedient for those too lazy to treat their wings with care.) With that benchmark in mind, two of us ate at three popular local chicken-wing restaurants — Wing Stop (a national chain), Chicken King and Wings Cafe — and judged their wings based on three criteria: size, crispiness and sauce. We also weighed the quality and availability of sides and supplements.
Size: Chicken King was the only place that served wings of an acceptable girth. Although they weren't monstrous, they were of a constant size and had a nice meatiness. The wings from Wings Cafe varied in size, but were more often on the smaller side. Wing Stop's were constantly puny.
Crispiness: The Chicken King came through with the moderate crispiness that we prize in a wing. Again, Wings Cafe's meat was hit or miss — there was some crispiness, but it wasn't consistent throughout the wing. Wing Stop's meat offered no crispiness whatsoever and had the mushy texture we came to abhor whenever our college dining hall served Wing Bar.
Sauce: Each restaurant offered a variety of sauces and flavors. We're not enamored of all these sauce choices. Frankly, any wing sauce that's not mild, medium, hot or BBQ is an illegitimate and crass consumer ploy. Don't be fooled by these bells and whistles. Still, we played the game for the review and tried as many flavors as possible.
Chicken King offered extra hot, hot, honey mustard, BBQ and lemon pepper, among others. At the register we came up against the “no more than two flavors in an order” rule, so we only got the extra hot and BBQ. The extra-hot wings were downright strange. They were a little bit sweet and had hardly any spice at all. The BBQ had a standard sweetness and was nothing out of the ordinary — it was similar to the BBQ at each of the other restaurants.
Wings Cafe had a very good straight hot sauce. There was a good amount of spice and flavor, with just a little bit of sauce pooled at the bottom of the plate for dipping. Mild, BBQ, teriyaki and honey mustard were also available.
You can get your Wing Stop wings dressed with nine different flavors: teriyaki, Hawaiian, garlic parmesan, lemon pepper, BBQ, mild, original hot, Cajun and atomic. The menu's description of the atomic: “The name says it all period!” So we decided to get it along with to the BBQ and the Cajun. The Cajun was the best of this bunch. In addition to an incredibly hot spice, the atomic sauce had a flavor reminiscent of Whole Hog's Volcano sauce. The wings were drowned in the stuff, though, so make sure you have a spoon.
Supplements: It is essential that chicken wings come with three sides: celery sticks, carrot sticks, and bleu cheese dressing. How else to cool the heat of the sauce and cleanse the palate? Wing Stop was the only restaurant that offered these trappings, however. It also had ranch and honey mustard, dressings that are totally perverse when paired with wings. (The Chicken King had ranch.) The fries at Wing Stop, which have a distinct garlic flavor to them, were superior to those at Chicken King. Chicken King and Wings Cafe were more generous with bread, however — while they included rolls for free, Wing Stop charged $4.99 for a dozen.
The moral of this story is that it takes a little searching to find good chicken wings in Little Rock. You need to head north for the real thing, but there are decent substitutes to be had here. Above all, do not be duped when Wing-Stop shill Troy Aikman claims that Wing Stop has “The Best Wings I've Ever Had!” You're better off with the small places.
3 1/2 stars
2704 MacArthur Dr., NLR
The best wings around. Crispy, meaty and with a number of sauce options. Plus, cheap and tasty fried catfish and shrimp options. The restaurant is strictly a get-and-go, so you'd be well served to call ahead. The King stays busy; don't be deterred if you don't get through on the phone on the first try.
10:30 a.m. -10 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Inexpensive to moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.
2 1/2 stars
4113 E. Broadway, NLR
A Rose City wing spot with a slight Asian influence. Go for the hot wings — crispy and coated with a sauce fiery enough to give you a start, though not quite sweat-inducing. Fried rice, egg rolls, Yakki Mandu and fried catfish are also on the menu.
10 a.m.- 7 p.m. Mon- Fri.
Inexpensive to moderate prices. No cards accepted. No alcohol.
1 1/2 stars
2913 Lakewood Village Dr., NLR
11321 West Markham St.,
Suite No. 2
The chain offers a wide variety of sauces, but the wings themselves are fairly puny and not very crispy. The fries, with skins intact and spiced with garlic and cinnamon, are among the best in town.
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.-Thurs; 11 a.m.-12 a.m. Fri.-Sat.
Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Beer, no wine.