By Scott Raab
What do we talk about when we talk about chicken wings? The now-classic buffalo wing, a paragon of bar-food excellence and the subject of passionate devotion for purists who, hailing from upstate New York themselves, have little else to inspire pride of heritage and place? One of the countless kinds of chicken wings and chicken-wing-like things purveyed by the fast-food outfits that get much of the credit for producing a nation of folks too fat to see their own toes and who have rarely tasted well-prepared food? The traditional chop-suey-joint chicken wing, a take-out staple dating to an era when Chinese food meant a bland, candified version of Cantonese and nothing else? Or how about them trendy Korean places quietly popping up all over the country, with their newfangled twice-fried wings and drumsticks?
Me, I'm talking about all of the above, because all of the above is what I eat, in the span of an hour and a half and in no particular order. One valiant sitting, in which I accomplished one simple task: chicken wings only, consumed exactly as they were prepared. No dipping sauce. No soft drinks, no beer, no possum, no sop, no taters; water only, to keep the taste buds fresh.
I know, I know: We're talking about a festive food, a halftime snack, something to chow down with a cold one or six. But this isn't happy hour, and I ain't looking for a good time - I'm seeking truth. Ungarnished.
Truth ungarnished number one: Eating the stuff from Papa John's first - because it's there - is a very good and a very bad idea both. Sold as "Spicy Buffalo" wings, they're ugly as sin, a soggy, foil-wrapped mess of clumped chickenish parts that feature a skin of undercooked subcutaneous fat, a meat beneath that's neither light nor dark - it's closest to gray - and a chemical tang that could strip paint.
It was a good idea to try the Papa John's first because every wing that followed, however mediocre, tasted good if not great. But it was a bad idea because those two bites - I gave two separate wings one hearty chaw each for duty's sake and fairness, too - will haunt me always, starting tomorrow morning.
We had threeboxes from Buffalo Wild Wings, a chain founded by two guys who did their time as Buffalonians. A large box contains their medium wings, which are fine - the plump drumettes are a particular pleasure, crisp-skinned and juicy. One small box holds wings doused with a chipotle sauce: nice but nothing special. Special are the wings inside the second small box, painted with a mango-habanero sauce of admirable complexity and decent bite. This is good stuff of obvious quality, cooked right and not overly sauced, entirely worthy of its claim to the birthplace of the wing as we've come to love it. Bravo.
All I'll say about Pizza Hut's chicken wings is that they're even uglier than Papa John's outside - a hideous Day-Glo orange - and just as gelatinous within. I wouldn't feed this trash to my dog, and my dog wouldn't eat it if I did. Feh.
Hooters is included here only because Esquire's chicken-wing editor insisted that we include its wings, which are as pedestrian as the concept that men are so transfixed by udders, and yet so disdainful of women, that they'll flock to be served by buxom waitresses rather than spring for an honest lap dance and go home to a lonesome dish of ramen. These wings are head, neck, and shoulders above the specimens provided by Papa John's and Pizza Hut, rising all the way to nondescript.
Jeffrey Westbrook/ Studio DT.G.I. Friday's
T.G.I. Friday's chicken wings, like its waitrons, seem interchangeable with Hooters', though Friday's employees show less skin. It sent over a box of "boneless" wings along with the traditional ones; breaded and fried, hot and meaty, they raise an important question: Is the wing qua wing truly worth all the mess and trouble? Isn't a fine breast-meat nugget enough?
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Jeffrey Westbrook/ Studio DOcean Dragon
That question lingers, hanging over the wings from Ocean Dragon, a neighborhood Chinese place. These have a naked honesty and a dusting of five-spice powder, which imparts an always welcome hint of cinnamon. Beyond that, not much - not at this point. Maybe I should've taken it easier on those mango-habanero wings or spread the whole thing out over a couple of days. Jesus, imagine if Garcia hadn't been struck by that cab. I'd be doubled over in the washroom.
Jeffrey Westbrook/ Studio DBon Chon
The chicken wing they sling at Manhattan's Bon Chon is Korea's answer to Buffalo and the wing-qua-wing riddle - are chicken wings worth all the bother? - and the answer, from bite one, is the bliss of a whispered yes. It isn't merely today's best chicken; it's perfect, the best fried chicken I've ever had.
On one level, this is delicate stuff, with a paper-thin skin that delivers a soul-satisfying crunch and a clean, subtle taste unmarred by anything beyond good fresh chicken and maybe a dash of salt and pepper. One batch is barely brushed with a sweetish soy-garlic mix, the other with a "hot and spicy" blend whose snap builds nice and slow to a friendly scorch. Both are superb.
I don't know exactly how Korean chicken joints pull this off - apparently Bon Chon fries in two stages at relatively low heat - but it's a magnificent food zing, a mighty liftoff even after a pound or so of lesser stuff. For the first time today, I tasted a side dish - the cubed pickled daikon radish Bon Chon includes as an accompaniment to its chicken - and then pushed back from the table to savor the buzz. And then?
Why, then I went back to work on the rest of the hot and spicy.
A special shout-out here to Garcia, the Domino's deliveryman who never made it to Esquire's offices. At one point, Garcia did call to say that he was waiting downstairs with the wings and where the feckity-feck - I'm paraphrasing - were we? Garcia was gone when we got downstairs, and a call to Domino's brought the news that Garcia had been hit by a taxi. It is unclear whether this occurred before or after his failed attempt to land the wings. In fact, it may be that he wasn't hit by a taxi, that - in Manhattan, at least - this may serve as Domino's convenient, what-the-hell alibi for any missed connection. One hopes so, for Garcia's sake.Individual wings photos by Jeffrey Westbrook/Studio D; bowl photo by Finn O'Hara/istock.
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.