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Buffalo wings without beer just don't make sense.
Washing down the hot orange sauce with an iced tea or a diet soda — like we did during the March Food Prowl — doesn't feel quite right.
And even for a non-sports fan like me, eating wings without an athletic event blaring in the background feels kind of off.
Nevertheless, in the days leading up to March Madness — which really is madness; even I filled out brackets — our team sampled more than 100 wings collectively at eight restaurants in search of the best.
You could call it the Elite Eight of wings, if you wanted to be a touch corny.
Why not? After all, we're talking about a tiny, saucy, spicy, two-bite piece of chicken. Wings are kind of corny, but they're also kind of iconic. They're what this season of basketball, bars and beers is all about.
So let's get this game started.
I must confess that I am far from a wing connoisseur. In fact, before this prowl, I had eaten wings exactly twice. So I called in the big guns for the tasting team.
My friend Alice Kim lived in Buffalo, N.Y., as a child and has eaten at the Anchor Bar, the place that holds claim to inventing wings. She was my first call and was our traditional wing barometer.
My second team member is another friend, Wayne Brekke, who likes his wings spicy (ghost pepper spicy) and makes his own version at home. He's the spice master.
The third judge, Jeri Studt, has a reputation for making great wings. She's the type of purist who calls boneless wings “an abomination before God.” You get the picture.
Our first meeting was at the restaurant that the most World-Herald readers suggested: Oscar's, in west Omaha, known for something called a “char-buffed” wing.
I asked our waitress for a quick tutorial on the different types of wings. It turns out that “char-buffed” wings, something we would run into at other places, are fried, then dipped in the sauce of the diner's choice, the finished on the grill.
We ordered ten char-buffed wings with classic Buffalo sauce; 20 classic wings with Buffalo sauce sans grill time; and 10 “Kujo” wings, for spicy man Wayne. The Kujo wings we also got char-buffed, and we asked the restaurant to dip them a second time in sauce — an option our waitress said is popular.
While we waited, panel members talked about their adventures in wing making.
Wayne has made wings with super hot sauce, wings without any sauce, breaded wings and grilled wings. Jeri has made beer-battered fried wings. Alice remembers her mom's special wing technique: frying the wings once, waiting 20 minutes, then frying them again.
The classic buffalo wings at Oscar's have the right sauce, the panel said: buttery, spiked with Frank's RedHot and a hint of red wine vinegar. The wings were the appropriate orange. Wayne had some issues with his Kujo sauce, though. Instead of being spicy, as expected, it was too tomatoey — and vinegary to a wince-inducing level.
Our favorite combination at Oscar's was the char-buffed classic wings, which had a deeper charcoal taste and were double-dipped in the classic sauce to make the exterior more wet than dry. The wings at Oscar's became the baseline — and also the ones to beat.
We met again at some of the most random stops I've made on a Food Prowl, all off Millard Avenue in the city's southwest suburbs.
At Choo-Choo Bar and Grill, Wayne ordered ten “Supernova” wings, made with a secret blend of spices, and the rest of us shared 10 classic wings.
The classic wings were spicier than the ones at Oscar's and not as crispy. Alice thought the buttery sauce had a hint of artificial margarine flavor and we all thought the texture was too soft.
The Supernovas were a lot darker than the classic wings, and as Wayne made his way through the basket, his face got red and his eyes started to tear. These things were no joke. His guess was that the sauce was made with infamously hot ghost chilies or Grinder's Hot Sauce, a brand out of Kansas City that makes sauces with names like “Death Sauce” and “Molten Sauce.”
When our waitress saw his empty basket, she looked astounded and told him he was the first person she'd seen finish an order of Supernova wings. Sadly, there's no official contest, so he didn't get a free T-shirt.
Even though he'd just downed nine epically hot wings — Jeri tried one — Wayne ordered another spicy batch at our second stop of the day, Ratigan's Pheasant Tavern, a dive bar of epic proportions.
We tried Ratigan's Thai Peanut wings, which were OK. The “nuclear” hot wings didn't come close to the heat at Choo-Choo, Wayne said, and the order of classic Buffalo style were crunchy but not saucy enough for the team.
At Addy's Bar and Grill, our third stop of the day and third off Millard Avenue, Wayne found his new front-runner, another char-buffed wing.
We got half our wings char-buffed with hot sauce and half regular with Buffalo sauce. The meat was tasty and the wings sizeable — for the women at the table, the flavor was good but the wings weren't crispy enough. Wayne loved Addy's version of char-buff, which wasn't as blackened as Oscar's.
We met a couple days later at the Crescent Moon — I requested a day off after I had a bad case of heartburn post-Millard Avenue.
The Moon's regular wings are called “Inferno” wings. We tried an order of those and a second of their chipotle wings, which turned out to be another favorite. The sauce on the chipotle wings had a deeply satisfying smokiness. All the wings came to our table steaming hot and fragrant with crisp skins and tender meat. The house-made dill ranch dip was a nice touch, as were a pile of wet wipes. Wayne left with yet another new favorite.
The Marylebone Tavern has the feel of every small-town Nebraska bar I've visited. Readers urged our team to check out the bar's blue cheese wings and we did, along with an order of classic wings. They were the biggest departure we'd seen — the wings were breaded and the two baskets included only drummies.
Though the team liked the savory wings, especially the rich blue cheese variety which had a chunky sauce coating the outsides, they were too close to chicken fingers for our three purists. And for the non-purist (me), they were overly salty.
We ventured to Council Bluffs to check out another char-buffed wing at the Salty Dog, a bar I'd never heard of.
Jeri wanted to like the wings more than she did, she said. The char-buffs were dry on the outside and didn't have nearly enough Buffalo flavor. And an order of ghost pepper wings didn't even come close to the heat in the spicy ones Wayne had at Choo-Choos.
We did like the homemade blue cheese and ranch that came with our order, but ultimately the wings just weren't Buffalo-ey enough.
The tasters had high hopes for the Buffalo Company, another last-day stop. The original owners of the restaurant were from Buffalo and retired earlier this year. The new owners, Omahans, held onto their secret sauce recipe.
We ordered a basket of the classic wings at the waitress-recommended medium heat and an order of suicide spicy wings for Wayne.
A few bites in, the team was impressed. The wings had a super crispy exterior, a moist, meaty interior and the right amount of sauciness. The heat wasn't overpowering but wasn't mild, either. The flavors and seasonings in the sauce seemed to permeate each wing, making the flavor last longer with each bite.
“I think I have a new favorite,” Alice said. “As soon as I took the first bite, I felt like this was an authentic Buffalo chicken wing.”
Wayne and Jeri agreed.
“I always think my wings are the best,” Jeri said, “But these have all the right components. I would come back to eat these again. And I could drink the ranch.”
Wayne said he also wanted to give a nod to the smoky chipotle wings at the Crescent Moon, but Buffalo Company got his main vote.
I was the only holdout, and even though my vote wouldn't change the outcome, I stuck with Oscar's. Oscar's char-buffed wings might be different from those at Buffalo's Anchor Bar, but I liked them best. I'd eat them again because of their crisp, charcoaled exterior and moist interior.
In a race that came down to the wire, our team went with the wing they thought tasted most like the original — and the most like the ones they create in their Midwest kitchens.
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