A chicken fight for wing supremacy

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Graphic: Libby McGuire
FeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.  

Buffalo wings are one of the food world’s great equalizers. Find the world’s most expensive Wagyu steak, chef it up, put an eff-you price on the dish, and you can only hope to produce the same balance as a great bar wing—the perfect combination of juicy meat, crispy skin, and tangy sauce in three-part harmony.

Wings occupy a place in the collective consciousness rivaled only by Thurman Thomas, Wendie Malick, and the Goo Goo Dolls. They’re the reason a certain wing and Weck joint from Ohio grew big enough to sling chicken in Panama, Vietnam, and the United Arab Emirates. I refer, of course, to Buffalo Wild Wings.

And it is that very franchise we’re pitting against grab-and-go competitor Wingstop in a battle for chicken wing supremacy. We pitted three old-school wings against two new-wave options and ordered some fries for the hell of it. Ref, ring that bell.


Buffalo Wild WIngs
Photo: John Carruthers

Classic Buffalo 

The difference between these two chains is evident right off the bat. Wingstop’s version of the classic gives every indication that it’s close to the standard 1:1 ratio of butter to hot sauce. Meanwhile, Buffalo Wild Wings—which I will hereafter refer to as BWW—boasts a thicker, better-emulsified sauce. It seems like Wingstop’s sauce is just much less focused on that glossy, thick sauce and more intended to be a classic bar wing sauce.

The winner might depend on your tolerance for heat. I thought the Wingstop wings tasted of absolutely nothing besides liquid fat and chili powder from an out-of-the way spice cabinet. My wife, Emily, thought the BWW wings were too spicy to get through an entire order. And that’s fair—not everyone’s got the same spice tolerance level. But since I’m the one writing this …

Verdict: Buffalo Wild Wings

BBQ

Back in my day, we didn’t have your Srirachas, your umamis, your SaltFatAcidHeats. We had gloppy barbecue sauce in a bottle and by god we liked it that way. I actually had to head to a slightly-further-afield Wingstop because not every location offers the Hickory BBQ flavor.

My fault for taking initiative—there’s a not-overdone note of liquid smoke in the Wingstop sauce, but everything else is just corn syrup sludge. “Cloying” is an overused word in food writing, but the sauce was so overly sweet my word powers fail me. If I had to sum up in a word, I’d make a new word up and the word would be glorb.

The Honey BBQ at BWW, meanwhile, manages some actual honey flavor, more restrained sweetness, and a more evenly-applied glaze. It’s not what I’d order for my first (or third) choice, but it’s a very agreeable sauce with way more nuance to it.

Verdict: Buffalo Wild Wings

Wingstop
Photo: John Carruthers

Lemon Pepper

Your less enlightened bar gluttons will avoid the dry seasonings in favor of taking a juicy trip to Flavor Country with one of ten thousand sauces. But dry-seasoned wings let the skin and meat shine through with plenty of extra flavor. Lemon pepper is another old-school seasoning, but I already used my terrible Old Man bit for the last category.

Wingstop’s are a thing of beauty—bright and floral with huge citrus notes and a perfect tingle from a generous mix of black pepper. This was (spoiler alert) by far my favorite Wingstop wing. I’m looking forward to throwing back a bunch of these with some lager in the very near future.

BWW’s, meanwhile, are way out of whack: an artificial-tasting potpourri of citrus without nearly the crack of pepper needed to right the ship. No contest here.

Verdict: Wingstop

Spicy Korean Q (Wingstop)/Asian Zing (BWW) 

Chicken wings featuring the flavors of Southeast Asian cuisines are finally catching on with the big chains. Which is fantastic, because we cannot have this horseshit speaking for middle America. Both of these offerings are built on a chili/garlic/ginger base with a touch of sweetness.

Wingstop again falls short by not tasting like much of anything. The ginger, garlic, and chili flavors were sad and faded. They were spicier than the classic offerings, but not by a ton, and they’re supposedly the second-spiciest thing on the menu.

The BWW competitor was much more vibrant—do a gastronomic squint and you’ll catch some sambal character. The soy and ginger came through really well, and despite being one of the last wings of the day, they felt compelling and delicious.

Verdict: Buffalo Wild Wings

Wingstop
Photo: John Carruthers

Mango Habanero

Chili heat, and one’s tolerance for it, is a very personal thing. For the spiciest offering of the day, we picked these because the habanero pepper is about the highest level of spice I can enjoy while still being able to get some nuance and flavor out of the experience. After that, it’s just tears and forehead sweat sans actual insight.

The BWW Mango Habanero wings achieve a great balance: sweet, sticky, slightly fruity, and ablaze with vibrant chili heat. They’re punishing enough to eat for the heat, but flavorful enough to keep one coming back. These are very nice wings.

Wingstop needs to fire their habanero purveyor. I had to check more than once to make sure I hadn’t been given the wrong wing. I’ve never felt so lied to by a press release. 

Verdict: Buffalo Wild Wings

Wild Card: Fries

Wingstop offers fries as part of their combo, so we figured what the heck, we’d stack those against each other as well. Wingstop’s fries have some character—cut in-house at each location, according to their website, and topped with their signature Cajun seasoning. That seasoning most definitely has sugar in it because there’s a definite kettle-corn vibe to them. But it works!

BWW’s fries are textbook well-cooked, perfectly fine skinless fries. But sometimes you need a little weird.

Verdict: Wingstop


Overall Winner: Buffalo Wild Wings

Dominating four out of five wing categories (and four out of six categories overall, if we toss fries in there), BWW takes the wings crown.

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