Describe your perfect chicken wing. Seems easy, right? You may even be one of “those people” who has already spent a lot of time thinking about it, perhaps perfecting your own recipe, maybe even counting wings in your sleep. (If so, you’re in good company; we’ve certainly had lengthy conversations about it at Smile Politely.)
But when you begin to contemplate this seemingly simple dish, there’s quite a lot to dissect. I mean, I can think of at least four sub-categories for sauce alone: consistency, amount, flavor, and heat.
The perfect sauce is a thing of beauty — and as such, it is only skin-deep. So what about that skin? Breading or no, naked but tossed and sauced, dry seasoning with sauce on the side for dunking, fried vs grilled vs smoked? The list goes on and on. But for the sake of brevity (let’s get to the pictures already!), I will attempt to “score” the wings at these next five eateries according to these simplified criteria:
- Appearance: I should want to literally bathe in its glory (c’mon, wings are messy)
- Outer: skin and sauce (it better be crispy, and I should want to order more)
- Inner: doneness (the 3 Ms: moist, mouthwatering, and meaty)
First up, let’s talk Boomerangs Bar & Grill…again. Not that long ago I wrote about Boomerangs and their wings, and I’ve kept going back ever since. They’ve got 12 flavors ranked on a heat scale, which I love seeing. They’ll even customize flavors for you; if you want Cajun seasoning on the mild sauce, go for it. I’ve tried all but two (tequila lime, chili) and I can say that even the faint of heat will be relatively safe trying the hotter ones. There's none of the get “burn-your-face-off” hot. Depending on your preference, you may want to inquire about the flavors before you order, as some are dry rubs while others are sauced, and they don’t distinguish that on the menu. Personally I like a saucy, naked (no breading) wing, so I’ve not tried their breaded wings. Teriyaki and garlic parmesan are always made in-house and are at the top of my list (teriyaki, mild, then garlic parm are the bomb). While the flavor of the garlic parm was tasty, be prepared to feel especially unhealthy while eating these as they leave behind a thin, buttery sauce pooled up at the bottom of the basket. The mild was a really good buffalo style sauce that was indeed, very mild with great flavor. Seriously, folks, go check them out on a Wednesday night when naked wings are $.33 (breaded wings, called “stingers”, are $.50). There’s not a better price in town.
Verdict: Wing appearance/presentation is hit or miss — it’s a dive bar that gets especially busy on $.33 wing night. But when they’re that cheap, if they taste good, I can overlook that. Flavors aside as that is mostly personal preference (you know my favs), Boomerangs fries up a damn good wing. They are fresh — never frozen. The skin is crispy (though I think they could have stayed in the fryer just a touch more), and they meet all three Ms. Note: dipping sauces and celery cost extra.
Second: Attie’s Bar & Grill. Another Urbana bar and grill, Attie’s is located at Stone Creek Golf Club. Attie’s has a pretty extensive menu. You can order 6 or 12 pieces and choose between traditional or boneless. Let’s say it together: “boneless ‘wings’ are just chicken nuggets for adults.” We’re talking only traditional wings in this series. What’s the next best thing to $.33 wing Wednesday? $.66 wing Sunday. Among my friends and I, we tried almost every flavor here, too. There were a couple of interesting ones that caught my attention (bloody mary, honey sriracha, and Attie’s dry rub). I like trying a restaurant’s unique/signature wing flavors as well as its take on the traditional staples. Everyone seems to have a “mild,” which is pretty generic terminology, so it’s always intriguing to see how they compare. Earlier I mentioned burn-your-face-off — well, the “hot” at Attie’s is just that. Wow! Consider yourself warned.
The Bloody Mary and honey sriracha were nothing to write home about, the bourbon BBQ was just okay, but I did enjoy Attie’s dry rub and garlic parmesan. I think I liked the garlic parm at Attie’s more so than at Boomerangs. There wasn’t an excess amount of sauce, it was thicker, and it coated the wing perfectly. And it’s funny how even the atmosphere can have an effect on how you enjoy your food. Attie’s just isn’t a place I think I’d want to go back to sit and hang out to eat wings, though the rest of their menu sounded wonderful. I tell you what I will go back for though: the jumbo mozzarella sticks. Holy hell, are those good! The wings just weren’t memorable….except for maybe the lingering burn to my mouth from that hot sauce!
Verdict: Although none of the sauces really stood out to me, the wings themselves were cooked pretty well. I felt they met all three Ms (moist, mouthwatering, and meaty). The skin was crispy, even while being tossed and sauced, and each of the sauces and dry rubs coated very well. Appearance was spot-on; the photos prove that.
Third, Big Grove Tavern serves up wings under their ‘Starters’ section of the menu. Bought from an organic farm in Wisconsin (why not Illinois?), the wings are buttermilk-braised and then tossed in your choice of three sauces: buffalo, Korean BBQ, or jerk. At a whopping $9 for six and $16 for twelve, these are the most expensive wings I’ve eaten. Because their preparation was different from the others I’ve tried (braised in buttermilk), I definitely wanted to taste the chicken on its own, and so I ordered six with all three sauces on the side. It had incredible flavor and was very tender from the buttermilk (the acidity tenderizes the meat). But — the trade-off — that cooking method doesn’t make for a super crispy wing. They were also a bit greasier, too. In my opinion, don’t even bother with the buffalo or jerk sauce. Go there for the Korean BBQ sauce, it’s fantastic: sweet, sticky and a great kick of heat — possibly even spicier than the buffalo sauce. The soy sauce and garlic really came through. Very good, but is it worth the price?
Verdict: For the most part, I think these wings captured the three M’s. Braising in buttermilk did so much for keeping the meat moist and mouthwateringly tender. They were plenty meaty as well. Though if you’re looking for a classic/crispy, fried wing, you’ll need to look elsewhere because Big Grove does things a little differently. Order these wings with the Korean BBQ sauce though, and you won’t be disappointed with flavor.
It ain’t no chicken shack unless there’s wings, and Watson’s Shack and Rail delivers on that front. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember there being a lot more sauce flavors back when they first opened. (There was an Alabama white BBQ sauce that was insanely enjoyable, but now, nowhere to be found.) But two classic sauces are now always on the menu: Carolina Gold and buffalo. The wings here are sold by the pound: 1/2 for $6 or a full for $12. Up until Big Grove, I always thought Watson’s wings were a bit on the pricey side. The full pound of wings at the Pygmalion Food Festival for $8 was ingenious....I wish they were always the price.
The wings have gotten bigger, too. They used to be much smaller; good thing they are sold by the pound. One thing’s for sure, I love a Watson’s wing. We ordered a full pound and split the sauces, half in Carolina Gold and half in buffalo. The Carolina Gold is my favorite. In South Carolina, mustard is king. This sauce embodies all the flavors of a Carolina BBQ: sweet, tangy, and of course, mustardy. The consistencies of both sauces were good, as were the portions. The buffalo was solid as well, and I love that it’s served with blue cheese crumbles and green onion on top.
Verdict: Even slathered in sauce, the wings still maintained a nice crispiness. They remained moist, mouthwatering, and meatier now than in the restaurant's early days. Remember, “meaty” doesn’t mean huge. Huge wings are just gross (not to mention unnatural). If you prefer that, order a drumstick instead. I’m talking meaty in terms of the ratio of actual muscle meat to the bone/ligaments (or that breading nonsense). Watson’s also keeps it simple with just two sauces and does them both very well. We’ve kept going back over and over again...and it’s not just for the slushies.
Smile Politely has previously boldly boasted that the best wings in C-U can be found at Papa Del’s. I was skeptical, as were most other people I told about that “fact.” Wings just aren’t the first thing you think of when you think Papa Del’s. So, try them I did. Their chicken wings are tossed in a buffalo sauce, or you can order them with a dry rub. Six for $6 or 12 for $11. I ordered a full 12 with buffalo sauce. Guys, I think we might have to have a ‘Wing Off’ competition. For my husband and me, Watson’s has been at the top of our list. But now, I really want to compare them with Papa Del’s side by side because much to my surprise, Papa Del’s wings were, in fact, pretty darn tasty. Now, the skin didn’t retain much crispiness, and they did seem greasier, but the meat was flavorful, moist, and tender, and that somehow made up for it. Papa Del’s does marinate their wings all day, which made a big difference. I should try them both again — sans sauce — to really see how the chicken wing itself stands up to judging.
Verdict: I’d say the wings here met all three Ms more so than any other place. And the flavor was fantastic. But for me, I prefer a crispier skin, and they were lacking in that department. I think at the end of the day, Watson’s nudges them out with crispiness and appearance.
I think you can tell by now that I’m a bit of a sauce freak. As I said before, I like my wings nekkid, tossed, and sauced. Some may say that saucing first as opposed to dipping may hinder the true wing flavor, or experience. I think I can confidently say that no matter what, all of these places know how to cook a wing, which is a prerequisite for the success of any sauce or dry rub. Sauce flavors and protocols will always be up to the wing eater to decide, but I think everyone can agree upon a well-cooked wing. And for that, there are a lot of great wings in Champaign-Urbana. I was quite surprised by just how many places there are for wings. What I appreciate most is they are all different. I love the classics, but I also appreciate each restaurants take on presentation, flavors used, cooking method, etc. Tell us which wing you would rank highest in the pecking order!
All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake.