Ralph’s Roadmap for Wings (members.tripod.com/~Backsight/) has reviews of places to get wings in 40 states, as well as Canada, Ireland, the Virgin Islands, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore. Why? It has something to do with finding a palatable way to sell fat and bone, the tastiest parts of any animal. Chicken isn’t generally flavorful, but its skin is, as are the bones. Wings, therefore, maximize its savory qualities.
In the case of Buffalo-style wings --- which for the sake of discussion we’ll take to mean deep-fried wings tossed with a mixture of oil and hot sauce --- there is the combined draw of machismo and, well, beer to take into consideration. Give a bunch of slightly buzzed guys something tasty, macho (that’s the hot sauce part), and gross (tearing up little animal joints), and they’ll eat as many as they can afford. Does the celery or blue cheese matter? Good question.
The saying “there’s no accounting for taste” is a problem when you write about food. Many people have a favorite wing spot, but if pressed, can’t tell you much about why they like it. Often, it’s an appeal to authority (“Everybody says Jeremiah’s are best”); for some, it’s just habit, picking a favorite bar and learning to like what it serves. Well, after having wings at 15 establishments, my wing team and I are ready to account for our tastes.
The wing team included myself, Stan Merrell, and the two Dave Andersons. Stan’s credentials are unquestioned; in addition to being one of Rochester’s finest post-punk crooners, he’s a noted burgerologist and aficionado of all things greasy and disgusting. Saxon Recording impresario Dave Anderson has been eating wings since before you were born, and his son, Dave Jr., is an intrepid youngster with a definite future in offering opinions on the trivial.
One of our criteria was size, with value being related but not synonymous. Jeremiah’s (1104 Monroe Avenue) --- a favorite with many locals --- serves large wings, but the size is offset by the expense. At $5.50 per pound, and eight or nine wings per pound, these are about the priciest in town. Richmond’s (21 Richmond Street) were, according to my size notes, “frightening,” and a better deal with 10 for $5, or 18 for $7.75. Chicken Mom’s (1159 North Goodman Street), a takeout joint, had the best value, with 26 wings for $9.25, which comes out to 36 cents per wing.
The over-under is roughly 45 cents per wing, with size mitigating that. Beale Street (693 South Avenue), Margaritas (1226 Fairport Road), Richmond’s, and the Sports Page (499 Monroe Avenue) all come in under that price. The expensive places would be the Distillery (1142 Mt. Hope Avenue), Country Sweet (515 Monroe Avenue), and Hitchcock’s (881 Merchants Road). A few places have obvious trouble with math. At both Rohrbach’s (3859 Buffalo Road) and Chicken Mom’s, you’re better off not getting the biggest order (at Rohrbach’s, in fact, the value goes down in inverse proportion to the quantity).
Another factor relating to cost is drinks. Some places --- such as the Distillery, Country Sweet, and Margarita’s --- give you free refills on soda. Richmond’s and the Sports Page, on the other hand, have their value offset by charging $5 for each pitcher (mostly ice at Richmond’s).
And then there are the super deals. Rohrbach’s scores big here, with a shocking happy-hour price of $2.75 a dozen from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 p.m. to midnight Saturdays. That’s worth a trip to Gates. Hitchcock’s runs a 35-cent wing special on Saturdays, and the Sports Page has them for the same price on Mondays and Wednesday. The wings are decent at all three places, though the Sports Page is very smoky and unpleasant. (The place seemed completely devoid of paper products.)
Value doesn’t come into the picture if the wings suck. One way to measure wing quality is whether you stop eating them before getting full. When the wings aren’t cooked correctly, or when the sauce is annoying for one reason or another, wings become unappetizing quickly.
Of the places we tried, only two need to be called on the carpet. The Distillery stands out for undercooked, undersized, expensive wings served by a surly, unhelpful man in a loud and impersonal environment. “It’s the Godzilla of sports bars,” explained Stan. Second, Sal’s Birdland (309 Ridge Road East) is a depressing place where the wings have the kind of greasiness that makes you feel queasy after just a couple.
Quality is largely a function of cooking and sauce, and taste in the latter varies wildly. The entire team likes the gelatinous glop in which Country Sweet’s wings swim (fly?), but I don’t. On cooking, we largely agree. Whether battered or not, wings should be crisp on the outside while remaining moist inside. Batters seal juices in very well, but they also tend to hold more oil.
Country Sweet’s battered wings, which we decided epitomize the Rochester style, seem more like fried chicken than the classic Buffalo wing. You can also get that style at Sal’s and Chester Cab (707 Park Avenue). Big Al at the Genesee Family Restaurant (211 Genesee Street) has it down the best, though. His coating is loaded with black pepper, and the chicken was the most tender we tried.
Country Sweet’s remained tender inside, and weren’t nearly as greasy as Sal’s. We got ours with sauce on the side, which I’ve been told is just plain wrong, but that did preserve the crispness. I was surprised by just how good Chester Cab’s battered wings were. The batter had a strong, peppery flavor, and was substantial without seeming like a layer of cardboard. It also stood up nicely to Chester Cab’s sauces.
A Buffalo-style wing purist, though, will tell you that batter is an abomination before the Lord. Whatever. It’s certainly true that when properly fried, the skin on a wing becomes a thing of divine scrumptiousness. Dave Sr. was bowled over by the cooking of Anchor Bar’s wings, repeatedly mentioning the wonderful things that happened to “those little pockets of fat.” It was almost a pork-rind effect, he said, and indeed, that does happen in the best-cooked Buffalo-style wings.
Jeremiah’s lives up to its reputation on the cooking score. The tavern’s enormous wings are crisp enough to crackle down to the bottom of the basket, even in lots of sauce, and the meat is moist. Hitchcock’s, Rohrbach’s, and Richmond’s also cooked our wings very well (Dave even found a fat pocket or two at Hitchcock’s). One aside here is that I find the drumstick inferior to the other wing piece (what’s that called, anyway?). Because of its uneven thickness, it’s almost impossible to cook the entire drumstick perfectly.
Margaritas had a unique approach, frying, saucing, and then grilling the wings. That worked exceptionally well on mild and medium wings, creating a depth of flavor that was unrivalled. The danger, though, is drying them out, which did happen to the Cajun style. Special mention also goes to Beale Street, where the skin was crisp but delicate, almost like it is on a good roast bird. These certainly weren’t Buffalo-style, but they were cooked with touch, and a bargain at $4.95 a dozen.
Sauce is the other part of the quality equation, and this is where individual taste comes in. We had one occasional wing team member who kept calling sauces “too brash.” I still have no idea what he meant. He also disliked anything with garlic, but tended to like standard Buffalo-style wings. This is odd, because Frank’s is such a classic sauce for Buffalo wings, and features garlic prominently. It’s a free country, folks.
The standard Buffalo sauce combines hot sauce, butter, and cayenne pepper. It’s tangy, aromatic, a bit greasy, and the level of grittiness often corresponds to the heat. We started to develop an attitude of, “Yep; another Buffalo sauce.” It’s not subtle, and the relish leaves little room for variation, but when you’re in the mood, it can be great (particularly for clearing the sinuses).
Jeremiah’s serves the hottest Buffalo-style wings we tried; the catatonic were so hot that five of us had trouble finishing nine wings. If you dig this style, and don’t mind the price, you can’t go wrong at this place. Hitchcock’s and Rohrbach’s also serve commendable versions of the classic.
Our favorite version of Buffalo wings, though, came from Chicken Mom’s. The place is a bit intimidating --- the cashier is behind what looks like bullet-proof glass --- but those wings are a deal and delicious. The cayenne is quite pronounced, and you’d better like garlic. The wings were fairly greasy, but held their crispness surprisingly well for takeout.
What we really liked, though, were the unusual sauces we encountered. On those marvelously cooked wings at Beale Street, we found a thin glaze, sweet but not cloying, with a hint of an Asian flavor. At the time, Dave Sr. called them the best he’d ever had in his life. Dave has a gift for hyperbole; he later called eating wings at the Anchor Bar “a life-changing experience.”
Richmond’s has its own sauce, which combines sweet, spices, and perhaps mustard to excellent effect. My personal favorite, though, was the medium sauce at Margaritas. It really wasn’t hot at all, but the grilling technique the place uses infuses the flavor wonderfully.
Of course, Country Sweet has its absurdly sweet sauce. Stan called the wings “sugary chicken bombs.” Country Sweet also has habañero and smoky barbecue sauces, which taste a bit different while retaining the syrupy character of the original (Stan dug the habañero). All the Rochester-style joints have a version of the Boss-like sauce, including the Genesee Family Restaurant, Chester Cab, and Sal’s. Chester Cab’s my favorite of the ilk.
Several places offer a barbecue sauce. Richmond’s has Uncle Ralph’s Famous Magic Sauce, and as bottled sauces go, it’s just fabulous. Richmond’s, isn’t consistent, but one of the nights we went, the wings with Uncle Ralph’s were among the top three orders we had during the whole mission. Chester Cab also has a great barbecue sauce, not as complexly spiced as Ralph’s, but smokier. Get that on the pizzeria’s grilled wings and you won’t be disappointed.
Many favor a deep dip in bleu cheese dressing, and almost all wings come with some. The cool dressing contrasts particularly well with hot sauces, but we’re sad to report that the general quality of the dressings is poor. My notes on the dressings are sad: “Miracle Whip with a few chunks,” “tasted like ranch,” “the French wouldn’t be happy,” “too thin,” and, simply, “blech.” Rohrbach’s wasn’t bad, and neither, surprisingly, was Country Sweet’s. Perhaps the cooling effect is what’s important, but if you’re going to call it bleu cheese, it ought to sort of taste like it.
A pile of celery sticks is generally standard issue with wings as well. This is mostly to provide a break when scalding your inner cheeks with something described as “nuclear,” “catatonic,” or “caustic.” Nobody was distinguished in the celery department, and we noticed that with takeout wings, the celery got steamed, which was most unfortunate.
What we liked, though, were the places that gave you some options with the sides. At the Genesee Family Restaurant, $7.50 sounded like a lot for 10 wings, but they were huge, and the price included two sides. Owner Big Al makes stunning candied yams, crisp-tender collards, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and more. Country Sweet’s wing pack dinner ($6.99) also includes two sides, and while they aren’t up to Big Al’s, we did enjoy the sweet potato fries.
A related concern would be what else you can get at the place. It’s entirely possible that you have friends who just don’t like wings. Beale Street has a full menu, focusing on barbecue, and the quality-to-price ratio is great. The Texas barbecued brisket is a highlight. If you don’t mind the prices, Jeremiah’s other food is very good, and you can even get things for your vegetarian friends. Genesee Family Restaurant is an excellent value for finger-lickin’ soul food, and will get its own column soon. Rohrbach’s, of course, makes its own beer, and Chester Cab makes pizza that plenty of locals swear by.
It’s mostly bars that serve wings, and you get typical bar drawbacks and attractions. Many are smoky, but a low ceiling can make that next to unbearable, as it can be at the Sports Page or Richmond’s. The bars with separate dining areas --- Rohrbach’s, Jeremiah’s, Beale Street, and the Distillery --- have better air quality. But of that bunch, Beale Street gets a ringing endorsement from the team; live blues beats out TV sets and local radio DJs by a long shot.
Country Sweet is bright and weird, with no smoke. If you go at night, you might meet the Friendly Parking Ogre, an enormous, pony-tailed man who tows non-CS customers’ cars. Parking is a nightmare on Monroe, a big minus for the Sports Page. Genesee Family Restaurant is clean and well-lit, with big tables so you can spread out.
The wing team paid attention to details. Beale Street had a big supply of wet wipes right there on the table. Nice. Big Al treated us like we were at his house. Our child-of-darkness waitress at the Sports Page was pleasantly dismissive, but the guy at the Distillery was not pleasant. The chairs at Richmond’s need replacing, and the tables at Sal’s can’t handle three large guys.
Is there a Best Chicken Wing in Rochester? That depends on what you’re looking for, but the place the wing team liked best was Beale Street. As Stan put it, “The one place I would return to for wings is Beale Street. They've got a winning combination: live music, great food, and good service. Nice place to hang out with friends and (of course) great wings.” Dave Sr. agreed: “I found the wings at Beale Street to be a titillating taste-bud experience a little sweet, not too much heat, crisp on the outside with sweet succulent meat on the inside. The sauce has a distinctive flavor, and reminds me of exotic, far-away places.”
Dave Jr. and I loved Margaritas. In his words, “The chicken wings at Margaritas were the best I’ve ever had. All of the sauces were fantastic with their own unique twists. The savory flavor lingered in my mouth, making me want to go back for more the next day. Delicious charcoal flavor with the tangy BBQ style makes them my number-one choice.”
The chicken wing is practically synonymous with Buffalo, and by extension, Western New York. It’s nice to be known for something, I suppose. Done properly, they’re a thoroughly delicious snack, if not particularly healthy. Eaten once in a while they certainly won’t hurt you, though I don’t recommend having them 20 times in a four-month period.Ralph's Roadmap for Wings