Buffalo wings, depending on the version of the origin story you believe, were born in their namesake city of ingenuity, desperation, or pragmatism. And like all genesis tales, settling on one retelling only raises another set of begets: Where, of what, and why Frank’s Hot Sauce? for instance. Or when did frying replace broiling as the cooking method of choice?
Those questions are beyond our scope here, which is simply to consider the wings of the moment, the intersection of bulk chicken parts, gallons of hot sauce, and pounds of fat – animal or vegetable. What made us sit down, tuck in our napkins, and take serious notice of Buffalo wings was not their mere existence, which has been documented as far back as LBJ, but their recent arrival in Grand Chain Epoque style in northern San Antonio, land of limestone facades and gated subdivisions. Chains, like civilizations, go through stages, and while some mid-’90s version of Buffalo Wild Wings was, no doubt, still serving wings in cheap-linoleum tack, today the 400-umpteenth outpost is shellacked in something approaching Middle America dining haute couture: high-def TV screens, import and premium beers on tap, and in one case, champagne pairings. We are clearly spending a lot of cash on a part of yardbird once thought best-suited for stocks.
And why not? Pulling apart those small bones to dig out the last sliver of sauce-drenched meat is satisfyingly atavistic. And they go so well with beer, eating them is a naturally social occasion — wings are meant to be consumed by happily huddled clusters of friends.
As we watched San Antonio’s economic boomlet give birth to one wing outlet after another, it seemed wise to get a handle on this new culinary map. The Loop 1604 purveyors are uniformly uniform, clean, and well-lit, but are they any good? (Yes.) Is there any place to get delectable wings on the River Walk without the threat of finding a scantily covered booty bent over at the table next to you? (Yes.) Will eating the celery sticks with bleu-cheese dressing help you avoid morning-after hot ass? (No.)
Fortunately, the Current keeps a wings expert on retainer: Kimberly Aubuchon, Unit B director and Artpace archivist by day, chef d’ailes de poulet by night. With the cheerful assistance of writer and Alamo City prodigal daughter Sarah Fisch and forbearant husband Michael Westheimer, we hit 11 wing joints in three weeks, packing Beano and Wet-naps for long slogs through piles of the wet, sticky finger food.
Our criteria/hard-earned wisdom:
We ordered the basic hot-sauce version of the wings when a straight-up Buffalo wasn’t advertised. The one exception was Pat O’Brien’s, which serves their wings with a Bloody Mary sauce. All other star ratings in this guide apply only to wings with a standard Buffalo-style sauce. We make no representations for Parmesan & Garlic, Mild, or other such aberrations.
Having been raised to a wo/man by “clean-your-plate” mothers, we ordered the smallest size available. Mercifully this was as few as five at some joints, but Lion & Rose, for instance, sells them by the pound. Woe to the wing marathoner.
Eating wings at more than three places in one evening leads to regret of both the deeply physical and psychological varieties. Two is optimum, three is pushing it. And then there’s the cold beer (or vodka tonics, or mint juleps) required to wash them down. In any case, by the end of any given wings trek, we felt sinful.
Ultimately, of course, repentance leads to primitivism leads to redemption. Or, rather, DIY. Buffalo wings, it turns out, fit that old saying about pizza and sex: We found no bad ones, only decent, good, and better. But I won’t lie to you; after a while, the wings started to blur in our memory (fortunately Aubuchon is a crack note-taker), and only a handful stick out in our mind, sometimes as much for atmosphere as for the wings themselves. On the River Walk? Go to Waxy’s. A sunny Sunday afternoon? Drive up to The Texas 46. Picking up to scratch an itch? Wingstop.
But — and this feels a bit like a sucker punch after three long weeks of self-pollution — the very best wings we had were homemade. The beauty of which was not only the absolutely fresh flavor of the chicken meat and the perfectly adjusted sauce, but the way in which they brought home the essence of Buffalo wings: frugality that doesn’t feel cheap.
Click to see The Wing Joints