BY EMILY FAITH
As natives of the Western New York region, we celebrate our blue-collar, working-class surroundings with such culinary delights as the garbage plate, the white hot, and that darling neighboring-city treat, the Buffalo wing. As a child I was shuffled between Rochester and Buffalo, and raised not far from the original spot where the original Anchor Bar first served Buffalo's claim to culinary fame. It remains the fan favorite, the party favor, a colloquial currency shared between friends who pretend not to notice the sauce on your cheeks and are happy to hand you a wet-nap and a bowl for the bones.
While I am proud of my regional heritage, at this point I have a certain ennui for the same-old wing preparations. It could be compared to the same malaise I experience when someone mentions their recent trip to Niagara Falls. It's the been-there, done-that scenario.
So I ventured out in our fair FlowerCity in search of the great white Buffalo wing, something that would reenergize even my jaded palate. My parameters were simple: all local mom-and-pop spots that have a different take on the classic. (In other words, no chain restaurants.) In an effort to work off the wing fat I was about to consume, I chose all city neighborhoods that were either bike-able or walkable, depending on where you reside.
I started out in the Neighborhood of the Arts. Village Gate is home to two places where I would find satisfaction on my wing wanderings. I love a hot wing -- in grade school I was the kid who was dared to drink the cafeteria's cayenne-pepper-spiked hot sauce, and did it -- and I have never lost my taste for the fire. Needless to say, I can take a break from the heat once in a while, especially for the sake of my quest.
The Italian-style wood-fired chicken wings at The Gate House (274 N. Goodman St., 473-2090, thegatehousecafe.com) were certainly of the milder variety. Baked and breaded with buttery Italian crumbs, these wings ($9 for nine) tasted of garlic and parmesan and paired perfectly with my personal favorite at the restaurant, the Auditorium pizza, a brick-oven-toasted, thin-crust pie with pesto base, mix of goat cheese and mozzarella, finished with bits of chicken. I know: chicken wings and chicken pizza? The bird is the word, my friends. These wings made for a much more savory than saucy experience.
The greatest discovery of my journey was up next. Salena's Mexican Restaurant (302 N. Goodman St., 256-5980, salenas.com) serves Dos Equis-braised chicken wings coated in a sweet and spicy chipotle glaze, with just a touch of heat and complemented with salsa-ranch dressing ($9.50 for 10). I was raving about these wings while eating them, and even two days afterward, when some other random locals overheard my adulations, they chimed in that they too believed these to be the best-kept wing secret in the area. No one expects the Spanish wing-quistion, so this was a pleasant surprise.
Most locals would argue that I'd be shorting myself if I didn't visit Jeremiah's Tavern (1104 Monroe Ave., 461-1313, jeremiahstavern.com) for some of its signature sauces. After all, the restaurant regularly wins for Best Wings in City Newspaper's annual Best of Rochester Readers' Poll. So glad I listened to the masses. The wide variety of wing dressings -- ranging from the obvious mild, medium, and hot to more interesting designations like "catatonic," "wise guy," and "holy habanero" -- were tantalizing and creative. I settled on sampling the "bee-sting" wings ($8.75 for 1 lb.), a sweet and spicy honey-barbecue slathering with a peppery twist. The unique sauce is certainly worth the investment, but do not miss the tavern's signature barbecue wings. And Jeremiah's makes dang good hot wings, too. But I digress.
Right next door in the heart of the Upper Monroe district is New Ming Restaurant (1132 Monroe Ave., 271-7267, newming.net). Just about every small Asian joint offers some kind of breaded, sauce-less wing as a part of its appetizer menu, but Ming's takes it to another level. Its crispy salt-and-pepper chicken wings ($4.95 for eight) are nice and mild, and not as heavy as you might expect. Not so much saucy, but more on the savory side of the map, the Eastern influence is apparent through the hot peppers and the bed of shredded veggie slaw they are presented on.
For the mixologists out there, I recommend the cosmic "dragon wing" concoctions offered at Dragonfly Tavern (725 Park Ave., 563-6333, dragonflytavern.com). I'm not talking about cocktails here, just fusion. Fusion style is the melding of distinct flavors -- like sweet & sour or killer hot -- into one saucy extravaganza. With the dragon wings ($9 for 10) there's heat and tang and even a smack of sweetness, and even the peppery kiss of hot mustard. Pure perfection on a plate -- technically a basket -- but nobody's nitpicking when the sauce is so good, so unique that you'll be dipping your celery, carrots, and even a few fingers in the bottom of the basket to make sure you've had every delectable drop.
They aren't technically wings, but the grilled drumsticks ($2.95 for two) at Sticky Lips (625 Culver Road., 288-1910, stickylipsbbq.com) are the perfect addition to any platter of ribs, brisket, or whatever meat you choose to validate eating copious amounts of the barbecue restaurant's delicious corn bread. The drumsticks are mammoth -- think of them as the middle cousins of giant turkey legs from a Renaissance Fair, or the big brawny sisters of the wee chicken wing. One could certainly make a meal out of two of these and a side. You can dress them up with the delectable sauces used on any of the smoked meats at Sticky Lips. The Betty's Burning Lips BBQ Sauce was spicy, smoky, and smooth, and the Cherry Bomb sauce weighs in with just enough fruity expression through the sticky-sweet hickory-smoked glaze to warrant straying from the pulled pork for a spell.
Mild and mellow wing lovers' prayers are answered at Napa Wood Fired Pizzeria (573 S. Clinton Ave., 232-8558, napawoodfired.com). An outdoor oven cooks the own fire-roasted chicken wings ($7 for eight). The light, crispy, buttery and breaded wings have just a touch of Italian herbs and are baked to perfection, then paired with a creamy parmesan-pepper drizzle. Diners can then dip the wings in either golden or smoky barbeque sauces. These can be coupled flawlessly with one of Napa's scrumptious vegetarian pizzas. My new favorite is the Medusa, a thin-crust coated with basil pesto, figs, pineapple, goat cheese, and finished with the signature Napa cheese blend.
To close out the wing expedition I took a trip to the South Wedge and the Tap & Mallet (381 Gregory St., 473-0503, tapandmallet.com) to sample its version of Country Sweet wings ($8.25 for eight). The jumbo-style wings, with their mild, sticky, candy-apple-like coating of Country Sweet-style sauce, should please anyone who prefers the milder variety, but doesn't mind a little kick. Pair them with a selection from the pub's wide array of craft brews. Of course, the original version can be taste tested at Country Sweet (1691 Mt Hope Ave., 244 3200), but this Wedge version was a sweet treat on its own, mellow, rich, and golden.
Did we miss your favorite wings or wing spots? Share your comments on this article at rochestercitynewspaper.com.