Peddling north on First Avenue through the East Village recently, I spotted a cluster of three restaurants in close proximity devoted to chicken wings — a wing node, if you will.
Between St. Marks and 9th Street, there was Dan & John’s Wings, with extensive outdoor dining on either side of the city’s busiest bike lane. Trays of wings would dart across the bike lane as bicycles bore down on them, like a real life version of Frogger. Across the street two blocks north was Atomic Wings, easy to miss with almost no street presence; and on the very same block, Koko Wings, which boasted a bold logo and some well-lit curbside tables.
I was almost at Stuyvesant Town when I realized how unusual such a concentration of aeronautical avian appendages was. Was this a neighborhood obsessed with football, or maybe one that viewed these spicy and bony tidbits as the world’s greatest drinking snacks? Either way, I rode back and parked my bike, and set about systematically gnawing chicken, with the intention of finding which place had the best.
But first I should digress on how this wing worship originated, since the phenomenon is part of every New Yorker’s culinary heritage. Buffalo wings were supposedly invented by co-owner Teressa Bellissimo in 1964 at the Anchor Bar, an Italian restaurant and dive bar on the northern outskirts of downtown Buffalo. Her recipe involved frying the wings — each divided into two sections — in cooking oil, then drenching them in a mixture of hot sauce and melted margarine.
On the other hand, Calvin Trillin introduced some doubt into this origin story in Third Helpings (1980), by mentioning that a Black Buffalonian named John Young invented something he called mambo wings in Utica about the same time. He left the wings whole and breaded them lightly first, though the rest of the treatment was similar. Whether you vote for John or Teressa as the originator, this invention has become the world’s most famous bar snack.
These considerations weighed heavily on my mind as I sketched out my plan. Since each place offered several types of wings, I’d pick three at each place, including the mildest one, the hottest one, and a wild card determined by asking the person who took my order, “Which is your favorite?” I’d taste them and then rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, then average the grades of each wing establishment to achieve a final score. Here are the results.
Dan & John’s Wings
This small New York City chain founded by Buffalonians started out as an outdoor stall selling Buffalo wings at Smorgasburg in 2013 and opened its First Avenue store soon after, becoming something of a landmark. The wings are of medium size, with a moderate amount of sauce, and the menu offers 14 types, including five variations on the traditional Buffalo wings: mild, medium, hot, inferno, and insane. Kudos for providing two types of dressing for dipping, ranch and blue cheese, and also celery, gone missing from the other places. 15 pieces with three choices: $21.99
These wings were on the firm side and really bland, without a trace of heat, even though they glowed brightly with an orangish cast. The flavor was good but not outstanding, with a buttery aftertaste not for everyone. Grade: 7
Since the five types of wings bunched up near the spicy side of the scale, I expected the spiciest, despite its retrograde and objectionable name, would be a good test of how serious Dan & John’s was about exploiting the macho side of wing eating. I was rewarded by wings that were on the upper frontier of edibility, so that I was able to down only one — with some dire consequences the next day. Good job, Dan & John’s! These wings accomplish exactly what they set out to do, with a mind-boggling burn that doesn’t hit till a few seconds after you start eating. On the downside, this makes them impossible to actually eat. Grade: 9
Dan & John’s non-Buffalo category runs to two types of BBQ, honey mustard, lemon pepper, and five other flavors. I picked sweet chili at the recommendation of the very friendly order-taker and dish runner. Though the emphasis was on the “sweet” rather than the “chili;” these wings in a quasi-Thai vein were tasty, but not compelling, and more heat would have been an asset, and maybe a Thai herb or two. Grade: 8
This expansive wing chain, with 12 branches in the city, some as concessions in bars and pizzerias, takes a very businesslike approach to Buffalo wings, either bone-in or boneless. I go for the bone-in, since the bones are half the fun of eating wings. Like Dan & John’s, Atomic Wings also has plenty of extra, non-Buffalo flavors, including jerk, honey mustard, and mango habanero. Five variations of the classic Buffalo wings are offered: mild, medium, hot, nuclear, and atomic. A ranch dressing accompanies, but no celery. Five piece: $5.99
The light orange color and thick emulsification was a bit disturbing, but these wings got the job done without a trace of heat. They provided the illusion of eating a Buffalo wing, but were a little on the tough side and smallish. Grade: 6
Not sure why atomic should be hotter than nuclear, but these wings provided exactly what many want in a wing: a sustained but approachable hotness, plenty of flavor, and plenty of sauce, enough so that the wing can be redipped as you eat it. Grade: 10
These wings were not bad, but seemed deficient in soy sauce flavor. A shake of salt might have helped. Not bad wings by any means, but disappointing if you wanted to pretend you were in one of many Japanese restaurants in the vicinity. Grade: 7
Despite the name “Koko Wings” suggesting it might focus exclusively on wings, this place turns out to be a conventional Korean fried chicken joint, offering a paltry selection of parts in various mathematical combinations. This made a nice contrast with the other places. The wings here are lightly breaded, recalling John Young’s mambo wings, but lacking the sweetness often seen in Korean fried chicken. Only three flavors were available, so I tried all three. Ranch dressing is provided, and each order comes with a free side, including some very good coleslaw, with further choices running to rice and pickled daikon cubes. Eight pieces: $11.95 (may be split between two flavors)
These were simply the breaded and deep-fried chicken wings one might find in any fried chicken chain, except lacking in salt. The poultry itself was exemplary, and the wings slightly bigger and plumper than average. Grade: 7
These had the salt that the original wings lacked, and a pleasant glaze, but no heat. Nevertheless, for the lover of not-hot food, the crunch might make them the perfect counterpoint to, say, a field goal kicked during a football game, or a sip of a sugary cocktail in a dive bar. Grade: 8
Whenever the words “hot” and “spicy” are juxtaposed, a red light should go on. Not because you should expect a mouth-searing experience, but because the two words put together are a tautology, an attempt to overemphasize something that is likely to be untrue. Accordingly, these wings produce a slight mouth burn that may be inadequate to some (especially given the perhaps erroneous expectation that Korean food will be spicy). But though one bite may leave you wanting more heat, a second bite will leave you wanting…more wings. Grade: 9
The scores average as follows:
Dan & John’s Wings, 8
Atomic Wings, 8
Koko Wings, 7.7
So, Dan & John’s Wings and Atomic Wings tie for first. The best wings I tasted overall, however, were the atomic wings from Atomic Wings.