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Coast to coast, deep-fryer to roast, these are the tastiest chicken wings in America, straight from the menus of some of the country's hottest kitchens
"You know it's right when customers' lips are bright red, as if they're wearing lipstick," says chef Neal Swidler of his Korean Fried Chicken with Sweet Chile Garlic Sauce at Lucky Rooster in New Orleans. Once discarded as trash, chicken wings have risen to glory as the ultimate bar food, and some of America's best chefs are elevating them even further with complex flavors, innovative updates, and cooking techniques once associated with fine-dining kitchens only.
"Five years ago chicken wings in America were the furthest thing from haute cuisine," says chef/owner Jonathon Sawyer of Cleveland's Greenhouse Tavern. With burgers, pizzas, doughnuts, and pommes frites all getting much-discussed chef makeovers, Sawyer decided, "it was time to re-examine this American classic."
From the Original Buffalo Chicken Wings at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, to the now-famous Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings at Pok Pok -- with fans reaching from West Coast Portland to East Coast New York City -- here are the best chicken wings in the country.
Pok Pok (Portland, Oregon, and New York City) Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings: "These wings basically pay our mortgage," Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker has said of Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. Hands down the most ordered dish at Ricker's wildly popular Northern Thai restaurants, the chicken wings are actually inspired by Vietnamese street food—not Thai—and the recipe was perfected by Pok Pok's first employee, Vietnam native Ich "Ike" Truong. After marinating in garlic, sugar, and fish sauce, the wings are deep-fried and cooked in a wok with more of the marinade mixture, plus Nam prik pao, an ultra-spicy roasted chile paste. A revelation in texture and flavor, the sticky, salty-sweet, umami-rich glazed cult dish is then topped with crispy deep-fried caramelized garlic. Photo courtesy of David Reamer
Husk (Charleston and Nashville) Wings of the Day: Chef/owner Sean Brock's commitment to ingredient-driven Low Country Southern cuisine shines through in all of his dishes, including his chicken wings, which occupy a permanent spot on the menu but change almost daily. "That slot on the menu is a fun way to make chicken wings the way we like to eat as cooks," says Brock. Iterations have included wings glazed with scallion barbecue sauce, wings in white barbecue sauce, and wings in Kentuckyaki, a Southern-staple sorghum- and bourbon-based sauce from Bourbon Barrel Foods. Inspired by the Americanized Chinese classic General Tso's Chicken, Brock's Slow Smoked Chicken Wings with house-made "General Tso's" Glaze are brined, smoked, fried, tossed in a sauce made from fresh red pepper juice, and served in a cast-iron skillet topped with peanuts and cilantro. "We just like to keep it fun and do whatever we feel like doing with the wings," says Brock. For diners jonesing for Northern-style wings, Brock offers an alternative: hot wing–inspired "Buffalo" Pig's Ear Lettuce Wraps served with sweet vinegar–marinated cucumbers and red onions. Photo courtesy of Andrea Behrends
Federal Donuts (Philadelphia) Whole Fried Chicken Wings: Don't let the name of the place fool you. This shrine to moist cake doughnuts also has some of the best fried chicken north of the Mason-Dixon Line. At the two locations of chef Michael Solomonov's popular shop, Korean-style twice-fried whole uncut chicken wings are served coated with chili-garlic or honey-ginger glazes, or dusted with dry seasonings like coconut curry, buttermilk ranch, or za'atar from spice master Lior Lev Sercarz. Each order comes with Japanese cucumber pickles and a honey doughnut, but insiders know to arrive before noon when the fried chicken is often sold out. Solomonov plans to open two new locations by March 2014. Photo courtesy of Michael Persico
Greenhouse Tavern (Cleveland) Crispy Chicken Wings Confit: "Five years ago chicken wings in America were the furthest thing from haute cuisine," says chef/owner Jonathon Sawyer. With burgers, pizzas, doughnuts, and pommes frites all getting much-discussed chef makeovers, Sawyer decided "it was time to re-examine this American classic." Inspired by the technique used to make classic duck leg confit, Sawyer created his juicy, complexly flavored Crispy Chicken Wings Confit, which he now serves at a rate of about 350 pounds of wings per week. We got Sawyer to explain his method: "First they're cured for 36 hours in a mix of salt, pepper, sugar, and chili flakes. Then they're gently cooked in a combination of beef, chicken, and duck fat for 12 hours in an immersion circulator. A slow cooling in the fat further melts the skin and tenderizes the flesh, ensuring moist wings. Then we let the chicken wings air-dry for 24 hours. This allows the skin to get crispy without the flesh getting soggy, leaving a delicious tender juicy wing." The Greenhouse Tavern's wings are dressed with lime, scallion, charred jalapeño, wheat beer vinegar, and raw garlic, but at Sawyer's Street Frites in Cleveland Browns Stadium, you can also find them dressed in a spicy peach honey vinegar sauce. Photo courtesy of Bridget Rehner
HATTIE B'S HOT CHICKEN
Hattie B's Hot Chicken (Nashville) Whole Hot Chicken Wings: There's a steady line out the door at this fried chicken spot specializing in traditional cayenne-based Nashville hot chicken served with white bread and pickles. "In Nashville, there's a fraternity for hot chicken eaters called the Fraternal Order of Hot Chicken who like it at extra-hot levels," says executive chef John Lasater. In-the-know fire-chasers, (including those who aren't members of the Fraternal Order…yet) can choose from four versions of Hattie B's meaty whole chicken wings including crazy-spicy "Damn Hot" and "Shut the Cluck Up" wings. The wings are coated with a dry rub, battered, and deep-fried, then Lasater makes a sauce by blending the hot oil that the chicken's been fried in with a spice mixture that includes cayenne, paprika, sugar, and a few other top-secret spices. "Immediately after the wings have been deep-fried, we do a wet application by dipping the chicken in the sauce until it's super crispy and the spices coat the chicken completely," says Lasater. The best ways to cool down after the heat of the wings: a local beer from Jackalope Brewing Company, and homemade sides like creamy bacon-studded red skin potato salad with scallions, and pimento mac 'n' cheese. Photo courtesy of Kevin Mac
EMPIRE STATE SOUTH
Empire State South (Atlanta) Grass Roots Braised Hot Wings: First served by sous-chef Eric Brown for a staff "family meal" (which, for those of us who haven't done a stint at a restaurant, is the term for how a restaurant kitchen feeds its own crew after-hours), the Grass Roots Braised Hot Wings were so good that executive chef Joshua Hopkins knew he had to add them to the menu. Hopkins and Brown refined the recipe by creating their own house-made hot sauce with fermented cayenne chiles, local sorghum (instead of sugar), and apple cider vinegar (instead of distilled vinegar). Served only at lunch, the wings are braised, deep-fried, tossed in a glaze of butter, hot sauce, and cilantro, and served over Carolina Gold rice and red beans. Photo courtesy of Steven Grubbs
Mission Chinese (San Francisco and New York City) Chongqing Chicken Wings with Explosive Chili: At Mission Chinese, home to the "best chicken wings in recorded history," according to TV host Anthony Bourdain, chef Danny Bowien elevates the chicken wing to fiery, lip-tingling heights. Of all the wings in all the world, why are these such a must-try? Two reasons: The exquisite dry heat that builds with each bite, and the ultra-crispy crust, created by first poaching the wings in oil, then chilling them in a freezer overnight before throwing them in a deep fryer. The demand for any take on chicken wings by Bowien is so huge that he even included them twice on the menu at his new restaurant Mission Cantina: as a mole-spiced appetizer with chili vinegar and in a taco with braised octopus and onion relish. Photo courtesy of Allen Yuen
Yardbird (Miami) Sweet and Sour Chicken Wings with Bacon: Chef Clayton Miller, a veteran of kitchens helmed by Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, unveiled his spin on classic Buffalo wings when he came to Yardbird in mid-2013: Sweet and Sour Chicken Wings with Bacon. After a 24-hour brining, the wings are dredged in seasoned flour, deep-fried, tossed in a Fresno-and-jalapeño-pepper jelly, studded with Nueske's bacon crumbs and bacon salt, and served with cumin- and roasted garlic–spiked escabeche mayo. But Miller's classic-wing shake-up didn't stop there: Later in the year he changed the dish on the permanent menu, swapping in fried Everglades' frogs' legs to stand in (sorry…) for chicken wings. For those not brave enough to order the "chicken of the swamp," Miller still offers the wings as a special. Photo courtesy of Yardbird
EAST SIDE KING
East Side King (Austin) Green Curry Chicken Wings: Bacon balls, beet home fries, and tricked-out ramen are just a few of the inventive dishes that have drawn Austinites to local-hero chef Paul Qui's ever-expanding late-night Asian BBQ food truck mini-empire since 2009. Qui now has four food trucks and two brick-and-mortar locations, all covered with original Japanese pop art murals by local artist Peelander-Yellow. The trailer located in the parking lot of the Grackle bar serves ESK's standout Green Curry Chicken Wings as a permanent special. Inspired by a family meal prepared by one of ESK's chefs, the wings are marinated in coconut milk and lemongrass, deep-fried, glazed in homemade tare—a Japanese barbecue sauce made with chicken feet, grilled citrus, garlic, and yakisoba—then finished on the grill with green curry sauce. The result: an incredible sticky, spicy, charred crust and juicy, complexly flavored meat. Photo courtesy of Nicolai McCrary
Talde, Brooklyn (New York) Kung Pao Chicken Wings: Brooklyn chef-restaurateur Dale Talde drew inspiration from his Filipino heritage to reinvent the ubiquitous takeout dish Kung Pao chicken. After deep-frying the wings until golden brown, Talde tosses them in a perfectly balanced spicy-sweet house-made Kung Pao sauce that's made with sweet chili sauce, chili bean sauce, Szechuan peppercorns, and star anise–infused Szechuan oil. A smattering of chopped peanuts, cilantro, and sliced scallions adds texture to the sticky wings. Instead of typical blue cheese dressing, Talde serves a rich buttermilk ranch dressing—a perfect foil for the heat. See more of America’s best chicken wings back at Epicurious.comPhoto courtesy of Bernard McWilliams
Note: All restaurant information subject to change without notice. Please contact the restaurants for the most current information.