by Chris Clemens
The Chicken Wing was born at Anchor Bar in Buffalo on March 4, 1964 when bar owners Tessa and Frank Bellissimo attempted to salvage an order gone wrong. Prior to 1964, chicken wings were basically considered garbage and no one had much of a use for them in the arena of human consumption. When Anchor Bar received a box on accident from their distributor, Tessa went to town on a recipe to turn the culinary dregs into something that maybe someone might enjoy. I highly doubt that evening Tessa had any clue as to the future popularity of her dietary invention but the small group of men who were her guinea pigs all loved them. Countless others have tried to replicate the original Anchor Bar wing and some have fallen miserably short of that goal while others have done quite well.
A while back I heard of a documentary where a bunch of people traveled around for a few weeks trying wings at different establishments in New York. I tracked down ‘The Great Chicken Wing Hunt‘ on Hulu and watched as Lyons local Matt Reynolds pairs his Slovakian friends with a group of Upstate New York chicken wing aficionados while they visit 72 different haunts in 16 days, sample 270 different chicken wing recipes and ultimately vote on a winner. The group created an objective scoring system and then agreed upon a wing that would set the pace for the rest of the contest.
While the process sounds scientific and objective, I tend to think that food sampling is anything but. I enjoy a lot of different types of foods (provided they haven’t come in contact with mayonnaise, of course) but have never had the type of refined palate that would move me into ‘Foodie’ status or a food critic. I either like something or just don’t, identifying the subtle nuances of a meal just doesn’t work for me. I do however love a good Buffalo-style Chicken Wing and always enjoy trying a restaurant’s attempt at recreating the Western New York classic. So, when the makers of “The Great Chicken Wing Hunt” determined that the “World’s Best Wing” was served up at Abigail’s in Waterloo I had no choice but to go check them out myself.
*Full disclosure: I actually went to Abigail’s knowing that the group voted it their top choice but hadn’t actually seen the film yet. After leaving Abigail’s I subsequently drove home (though, as you’ll read later not straight home) and fired up Hulu to find out what these people were talking about.
I brought a friend along who originally grew up just South of Rochester and has since moved to Phoenix. Being a wing fan herself, she is a bit dismayed that in Phoenix a wing is a boneless BBQ concoction. While she was in town visiting she loved the idea of having not only a legit wing, but one considered to be the best of the best. Abigail’s hours are a little funny, they’re open 11a to 2p and then open again at 5p for dinner, so we arrived promptly at 5:01p and were not even the first party to be seated.
Abigail’s is a party-house feeling restaurant on Route 20 in Waterloo, just a few miles West of historic downtown Seneca Falls and offers a full menu that includes different variations on the chicken wing. Apple walnut, Cranberry Vinaigrette, Pumpkin Spice, Jalapeno (that’s how it was spelled on the menu) and Cheddar, Garlic Teriyaki, Honey Buffalo, Bleu Bayou (in mild, medium and hot) and then a sauceless hot wing round out each of their options. We really wanted to try the award winner, so we got six Bleu Bayou in mild, six Bleu Bayou in medium and then six sauceless. When told they were out of sauceless, we went with the Garlic Teriyaki to finish off our order of 18. The other options we both agreed were not options at all.
The ‘Buffalo style’ wings were colored a pale orange, indicating their namesake as ‘Bleu Bayou’ because Chef Columbus Marshall Grady takes a traditional Buffalo style sauce and mixes it with bleu cheese and chopped celery. In defense of Abigail’s wings, I hate bleu cheese. I particularly have never understood why people put it on their chicken wings and have always likened it to putting cream and sugar in their coffee. I feel like it’s a feeble attempt to somehow make the taste of the staple item acceptable to their palate.
Typically I order my wings well done so they’re crispy, but for this experiment I ordered exactly as they came off the menu. I started with the mild Bleu Bayou which was meaty, but not nearly cooked long enough to my preference. The first bite in I could already tell that the amount of bleu cheese that had been mixed into the sauce was way too much for me to enjoy, but I finished the wing. The Garlic Teriyaki had a better looking presentation, but biting in immediately gave me a flavor burst that my brain was convinced was entirely all wrong. I wanted a chicken wing dammit! A real Chicken Wing!!
The medium Bleu Bayou seemed to be a medium simply because it had less bleu cheese in the sauce and as a result the color was just slightly more orange and just barely more edible than the mild–I was able to choke down two of the medium. My accomplice was having similar doubts with each bite and we ultimately decided that rather than forcing ourselves to eat these, that we’d leave and stop somewhere on the ride home and get something more satisfying. After filling my belly with other stuff I settled in to watch ‘The Great Chicken Wing Hunt’.
Throughout the film there is some discussion about what makes a traditional Buffalo-style Chicken Wing and whether or not anything other than that should be considered a novelty wing. A traditional Buffalo-style wing is an unbreaded wing deep fried and tossed in a vinegar sauce (usually Frank’s Red Hot) with butter and cayenne pepper. I share the opinion of some of the team members who insist that anything different is just simply not a Buffalo-style chicken wing at all. Abigail’s was chosen almost nearly across the board by all team members as a Buffalo-wing because it incorporated the tastes of the buffalo wing itself, and the two sides that it often is served with: bleu cheese and celery sticks. A chef from Prague, Ric Kealoha, was one of the Chicken Wing Hunt team members that emphatically disagreed with his fellow documentarians and insisted that though the wing had merit, it was most certainly not a Buffalo-style Chicken Wing and therefore didn’t deserve to win. After trying the Bleu Bayou recipe at Abigail’s myself, I have to say that I couldn’t agree more–and what’s more, they were easily some of the least enjoyed wings I’ve ever had.
Overall the film is a really fun watch, and in fact, Matt even refers to it as a ‘Documentary Comedy’ but I have to respectfully disagree with their decision that Abigail’s has the best and actually, wouldn’t even allow Abigail’s to be considered in the first place. That of course doesn’t mean you won’t like it or even that it isn’t worth eating, it just means that as far I’m concerned it’s not really a Chicken Wing at all. If you’re wondering what my choice is for ‘Best Wing’ it is without question, the mild-medium sauce at Duff’s in Amherst on a well-done wing. Care to disagree? Leave me a comment!
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens