The Ultimate Wing Smackdown
When you eat at 12 different chicken wing joints in the span of three days, you ask yourself a lot of questions. Like, what exactly makes a wing great? And, how sweet is too sweet? And, how soon will I die?
Creative Loafing's culinary Smackdowns have become an annual tradition. Over the past three years, we've taste-tested, judged and ranked the city's best burgers, pizza and doughnuts. This year, we considered a great number of foodstuffs, but once we landed on chicken wings, we knew we had our answer. Atlanta wings are having a serious day in the national sun right now, but our city's been doin' 'em right since long before Paper Boi got hooked up with lemon pepper wet on Donald Glover's "Atlanta."
Of course, this Smackdown would not have been possible without you our readers. We crowd-sourced our list of contenders from a CL Facebook post that asked simply, "What are the best chicken wings in the city?" More than 700 of you replied, making one thing abundantly clear: Atlanta does not fuck around when it comes to wings.
To do the tasting and judging, I rounded up longtime CL food contributors Brad Kaplan and Angela Hansberger, our trusty assistant editor (and Atlanta native), Adjoa Danso, and resident beer guru Dennis Malcolm Byron, aka Ale Sharpton. My long-suffering intern, Alex Patton, compiled and ranked every last one of your picks and we whittled that list down to 12 contenders. Our aim was to provide a well-rounded snapshot of Atlanta wings, from classic fried to smoked, Buffalo to lemon pepper, and various combinations of the above (but no breading allowed). We created a 30-point scoring system based on five criteria flavor, exterior texture, interior texture, value and overall experience and asked each restaurant to nominate its signature wing. For those that did not reply, we ordered the shop's best-seller, according to its employees.
And then, it was time to eat. And oh, how we ate: out of the back of a car at a gas station, sitting on a concrete patio in direct afternoon sunlight, at a strip club with only one stripper. We journeyed from Hapeville to Inman Park to Norcross, through a series of takeout counters, sports bars and barbecue joints. Armed with nothing but wet wipes, floss picks, Prilosec and some Canadian palate-cleansing gum that straight-up tastes like soap, we transformed from intrepid food critics to ragged survivors. By day two, we were fighting over celery. By day three, we were making jewelry out of old chicken bones.
But in the end, we emerged triumphant and confident in our choices. We're sure you'll disagree with many of them, but we'll consider that a testament to the breadth and talent of our city's wingmakers. Here, from the mouths that ate them all, are Atlanta's very best chicken wings, ranked. Welcome, friends, to the Ultimate Wing Smackdown.
- Hilary Cadigan, CL food editor
490 Fairburn Road S.W., Suite A and other locations. 404-691-5538.
Wing type: Fried
Sauce: Butter lemon pepper
Price: $6.75 for 10 wings, plus celery
Setting: Take-out wing counter at a gas station
Score: 15.5 out of 30
Hilary Cadigan: So here we are, eating out of the back of Angela's car in a gas station parking lot with a loud truck backing in. Classic wing situation.
Brad Kaplan: Is that 10? No wait, there's only nine.
HC: Yeah, there were supposed to be 10 wings in here.
Dennis Byron: Go get number 10!
Angela Hansberger: These don't look wet.
BK: We didn't order wet; we ordered butter.
AH: Well, that's pretty much the same thing, isn't it?
DB: That wilted, drunk-ass celery looks suicidal. It's an insult to those trying to eat a vegetable to lessen the guilt of consuming these blood-pressure boosters.
HC: They taste quite buttery.
BK: I need a beer. That's a lot of salt.
Adjoa Danso: There's nothing special about these.
HC: The skin is nice and crispy.
AH: I picture margarine tubs and plastic lemon juice squeezers in the kitchen.
DB: They have the appearance that a lemon pepper dozen in ATL is known for, but the flavor says chef was heavy-handed with both the salt and pool of butter substitute a movie theater wouldn't even use. If you ate all of those you'd feel real gross at the end. Oil would be oozing out of your pores.
BK: Fake-ass movie popcorn butter sauce is a killer.
DB: This store's name needs to be revisited, IMO.
125 Lawrenceville St. N.W., Suite 400, Norcross. 770-449-0229. www.chasesgrilleandwingery.com.
Wing type: Fried
Sauce: House special Maui Waui
Price: $8.95 for 10, plus carrots
Setting: Cozy, classic but very clean sports bar in Norcross
Score: 17.25 out of 30
AH: The math is weird on this menu: 20 wings cost more than two orders of 10.
HC: This setting is nice.
AH: These wings are very large and honey-looking. They've dressed the ends of the drums. And they come with a big pile of fresh-looking cut carrots. The chicken is cooked well, but oh man, this sauce. I hate it.
AD: The carrots are amazing; the dressings and sauces are not.
BK: Why do people think sweet is the way to go?
HC: This sauce tastes like it was sold in a jug, with a faux-tropical label. At Kroger. Or like, a chain restaurant supply warehouse.
AH: This sauce offends me like Guy Fieri.
HC: I don't even really like the interior, either. There's a ton of meat in there, but it doesn't have much flavor. And I know interiors are supposed to be moist, but this is almost too moist. Watery even.
AD: I know what you mean. With a sauce like this, you have to season the chicken more. It tastes like maybe they used to use smaller wings and then they didn't adjust their cooking method for the bigger wings.
BK: This might be the biggest letdown.
494 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E. 404-688-8009.
Wing type: Fried
Sauce: Agave barbecue
Price: $6.99 for 10 wings
Setting: Small takeout joint in the middle of EAV with a bright yellow exterior
Score: 17.625 out of 30
BK: There's definitely something to be said for the street experience here. You can sit on this bench in the middle of East Atlanta Village and people-watch.
HC: Atlanta points for this one.
AH: These wings look very, very saucy.
BK: The puddle's not as big as the some of other places, but the amount sticking to the chicken is very high.
AD: No accoutrements!
AH: It tastes like sweet barbecue sauce. And celery salt.
HC: Celery salt ... instead of celery on the side?
BK: The sauce is thick, which is actually a good thing.
AD: Inside's good.
AH: Yeah, but not remarkable.
HC: I really taste the agave in the sauce. It stays in your mouth afterward and kind of numbs it in a way that's not pleasant. It's like that feeling you get from eating too much candy.
BK: If we had done this 10 years ago, everyone would be doing extra hot Buffalo. No one is going that way right now.
HC: I feel like I would enjoy this more if I was drunk. Which makes sense, because when I'm in EAV, I am usually drunk.
1160 Fairburn Road S.W. 404-349-0006.
Wing type: Fried
Sauce: House special sweet and tangy hot sauce
Price: $9.95 for 10 wings, plus carrots and celery
Setting: Takeout counter inside, unshaded cement patio with picnic tables outside
Score: 17.7 out of 30
BK: The nice lady at the counter calls this flavor "sweet and tangy hot sauce." It's very wet, looks like traditional hot sauce but a little thicker. We're going to need more napkins.
HC: OK, they're very orange. The wings, I mean. Not the carrots. That carrot looks ancient.
DB: They remind me of what that uncle would make at the family barbecue, complete with knee-high dress socks to confirm his were the best. Fried and then tossed. They were good, Unc, but they needed a lifeguard with all that extra Buffalo sauce.
BK: Pointing to wing That's a tiny guy.
AD: I kinda like them when they're tiny, because you get more crispness.
DB: Looks pretty drum-dominated to me.
HC: We've got a drum-dominated situation. There are only two flats.
BK: The sauce is not too sweet, just a little bit, and almost fruity. If I had to guess ... it's not peach but something in that direction. Doesn't it taste fruity?
HC: Yeah it does. A bee just flew onto it. Proof?
AH: They're really sweet. They taste like Buffalo sauce mixed with sweet and sour sauce. And they smell like hot dog buns. I don't like them.
AD: I think I would come back here for a different flavor.
DB: Not the best, but certainly not the wackest. I'll be a good nephew and give 'em another try soon.
2243 Akers Mill Road S.E. 770-612-2502. www.heirloommarketbbq.com.
Wing type: Smoked then fried
Sauce: House sweet and spicy Korean
Price: $14 for 1 pound, plus spicy pickles and two sides
Setting: Takeout counter inside, semi-shaded patio with standing tables outside
Score: 20.875 out of 30
AH: This place is a sausage party. So many dudes. And they're all wearing khakis.
HC: Sooo many khakis. Also, it's broiling hot under this red umbrella. I feel like I'm in a rotisserie. And the fan is blowing my hair into the sauce.
BK: The sauce has an unappealing thickness to it. It's almost gelatinous, like a Chinese sweet and sour sauce.
AH: General Tso's.
AD: With black sesame seeds and some chili flakes.
BK: It is a little sweeter than I'd like it to be.
AG: It is a lot sweeter than I'd like it, but that's kinda what they're going for.
AD: Too sweet for me.
HC: Yeah, but the sauce on its own is more zesty than sweet, so there might be a sugar brine or something on the actual meat.
AG: I like the char on the edges.
BK: The smoke is not present on this one. Being in a barbecue place, I wish they were a little smokier.
AH: I think the spicy pickles on the side kind of make up for the sweetness of the sauce.
BK: True. The pickles are the only accoutrement we've seen that's spicier than the main attraction. Usually it's blue cheese or ranch to cool you down, but they're going the opposite way, which I like.
AH: The parking lot is fun if you like a showdown. That lady has been circling for hours and she looks very mad.
1238 DeKalb Ave. N.E. 404-577-4030. www.foxbrosbbq.com.
Wing type: Smoked then fried
Sauce: House spicy barbecue sauce
Price: $16 for 12 wings
Setting: Air-conditioned classic barbecue joint inside, shaded patio outside
Score: 21.4 out of 30
DB: Size-wise, these wings look like they spent a lot of time in the gym. I like mine doing fewer reps.
AH: Hickory smoke really comes through.
DB: Well-balanced with smoke, seasoning and a perfect browning in all the right places.
BK: I like it better without the sauce, though. I'm kinda bummed they told us to go with the tossed.
AH: I feel like it could be rendered more; it's not crispy. In fact, it's kind of rubbery.
HC: Yeah, the meat inside is great, but the outside is really not great. Supposedly they flash fry them after they smoke them for crispiness, but it doesn't seem like that's what happened here.
BK: I don't remember the skin being as rubbery as it is today, so we might've just gotten a subpar batch.
AD: I like the sauce; if it were crispier with the sauce it would be perfect.
BK: To me, this sauce feels like a middle ground between barbecue and hot that just falls a little flat.
HC: Wow, we have two skin removals. I repeat, Angela and Ale have just removed and discarded their skins.
AD: That's never a good sign.
BK: Luckily, there are wet wipes.
HC: Points for wet wipes!
918 Austin Ave. N.E. 404-872-4990. www.thealbertatlanta.com.
Wing type: Smoked
Sauce: House barbecue sauce, on the side
Price: $11 for 10 wings, plus celery
Setting: Neighborhood bar and restaurant with plenty of TVs
Score: 22.7 out of 30
AH: We have hair-metal blasting, juxtaposed with country tables and mason jars with flowers.
HC: And a somewhat gothic design element on top of that lots of leather and wrought iron. I love the ambivalence of this place.
BK: Wow, that's some really crunchy-looking skin. That looks like it's fried at the end.
HC: Yeah, they're smoked and then flash fried. Look at that glisten!
AH: These are the crispiest in the land.
HC: I can hear that crunch from here.
AH: The smoke comes through; it lingers. And I really like this house-made blue cheese dressing. It's very subtle.
AD: I'm not a fan. Too crispy. They taste a little salty, too, but that might just be my mouth.
DB: It's closer to a Korean fried almost.
AH: Or even jerky?
HC: But the inside is pretty juicy.
BK: Simple pleasures. Smoked but definitely meaty, and they don't suffer from the lack of sauce. And then the barbecue sauce on the side is great for dipping.
DB: This Scofflaw Basement IPA surely doesn't hurt, either.
HC: There's a pretty wide range of sizes here: Some of these wings are tiny and some are pretty big.
DB: They've been smoky and flavorful on past visits. A little overdone this go 'round. I know how the Albert usually gets down on making stellar wings since they are in my 'hood but hey, even Kobe had off days.
241 Forsyth St. S.W. 404-584-5847. www.magiccity.com.
Wing type: Fried
Sauce: Lemon pepper
Price: $15 (cash only) for 10 wings, plus fries
Setting: Strip club, with a full bar and walk-up window for ordering food
Score: 24.4 out of 30
DB: Can't lie, between a video featuring Waka Flocka endorsing these wings and being served in this historic Atlanta dance institution, I couldn't wait to hit up Magic City.
HC: I am thrilled to be here with y'all.
DB: And let it be known, we're having wings along with the Migos.
HC: Yeah, we're at Magic City on a Monday for lemon pepper wings and "Bad and Boujee" is playing. This may be the most Atlanta experience any of us will ever have.
BK: I don't think I could ever be that comfortable being naked all the time.
HC: Plus, we have strip club observations from Brad.
BK: Beers are $5 each, not bad, but they seem to be very anti-craft beer here.
DB: Not even SweetWater?
BK: Not even SweetWater.
HC: All right, so we've got fries on the side. The wings look pretty dry.
DB: Which is good. Or could be good.
HC: Yeah, apparently it's so you don't get grease on the dancers. Like that guy. A guy at the bar is making it rain bills on the lone stripper in the room.
AH: Oh man, I'd come here for the wings.
HC: The lemon pepper is really nice. It tastes like real lemon.
DB: Perfectly seasoned, deep-fried and crispy. Mine's a little dry though, inside.
AH: It is? Mine's really moist. It's hard to say moist when I look up and see ...
BK: Don't go there!
AD: The skin is perfect.
BK: Beer helps, too. These aren't like, mind-blowing, but they're really well done.
AD: If I had to pick a wing, like the wing that I'd go back to, I'd pick this. This is how I like my wings.
DB: I agree. And although these are the most expensive, they do come with fries. And not wilted-ass vegetables. And the grease it leaves is a lot less gross than others.
HC: Yeah, I actually just sopped up the grease with a fry. Which is maybe a pretty fucked up thing to do, but I did it.
DB: Bless your heart.
856 Virginia Ave. 404-768-0036. www.pitboss-bbq.com.
Wing type: Smoked then grilled
Sauce: Teriyaki lemon pepper
Price: $12 for 10 wings, plus celery
Setting: Smokehouse with wooden walls and Diana Ross music playing
Score: 25.1 out of 30
DB: This is the epitome of a legit, down-home, in-the-hood barbecue spot.
AH: These wings are lacquered in sauce. I love the way they smell.
DB: They are definitely on the wet side, which is cool. Slightly jumbo, well-seasoned, juicy, with just enough glaze presented in that red plastic basket you always love to see.
BK: This is going to be messy as hell.
HC: Wearing a light-colored shirt today was not smart.
BK: Plenty of smoke. They're very meaty, very juicy, and I don't know that I would know there's lemon pepper in here, but it's got a nice tanginess to it.
HC: It's a surprisingly good flavor combination. I thought it would be too much.
AD: It's milder than I expected. Probably the most successful nontraditional sauce.
AH: And it doesn't taste like teriyaki at all, which I like.
BK: The skin has some body to it, because of the smoke hitting it, and the grill is giving it the crunchiness around the edges. Best marriage of smoke and fire.
HC: Well, my shirt is officially stained.
129 North Ave. N.E. and other locations. 404-881-1950.www.jrcrickets.com.
Wing type: Fried
Sauce: Lemony pepper wet
Price: $9.99 for 10 wings, plus celery or fries
Setting: Classic wing spot with grimy bathrooms, booths and central high-top table
Score: 25.3 out of 30
HC: OK, so a brief interlude before we dig in. These wings are tossed in Cricket's traditional hot wing sauce, then sprinkled with their "lemony pepper" seasoning. So they're different than what some other wing spots call lemon pepper wet dry rubbed lemon pepper wings drenched in liquefied butter.
AD: Apparently a lot of people used to request a hot and lemon pepper combo so J.R. Crickets added them to the menu almost 20 years ago and called them Fester wings, after Uncle Fester from the Addams family. But they changed the name after the infamous "Atlanta" episode came out. I come here way too often.
HC: Taste-wise, they're kind of a perfect combo of lemon pepper and classic Buffalo. I feel like I have it all right here.
AH: These are the best we've had so far. Super crisp, exterior crunch, meat imbued with smoke. The stuff of poultry legend.
AD: And look at that celery that's some good celery right there.
BK: There's a lot of variability bite to bite, in how much lemon pepper you get hit with. But flavor-wise, this is my favorite.
DB: It's the most complex.
HC: There's a pool of sauce, but the wings themselves aren't overly drenched, which is nice. You have the option to dip if you need extra. Nice house-made blue cheese dressing, too; pairs well with the lemon pep. Man, I said I was only going to have one this time, but I'm having another.
BK: They're very addictive and crushable.
DB: I like the size of them. They're not Bo Jackson, but they're also not thin.
AH: All the flavors that they promised in the description come through.
AD: This is breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is THE wing. Size is right, price is right, celery is right.
758 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E. 404-873-5002.
Wing type: Smoked then fried
Sauce: Korean Buffalo/lemon pepper
Price: $12 for 10 wings
Setting: Dive bar with foosball and plenty of local beers on tap. Strictly 21+ and no to-go orders
Score: 26.5 out of 30
DB: We've got a great beer selection here, including Creature Comforts on draft.
AH: Oh man, this wing almost tastes like bacon. And the sauce is a perfect amalgamation of the two flavors, with a tangy, mild, lingering heat.
BK: It's neither too Korean nor too hot. I'm a fan. I like how tender it is.
DB: This comes off the bone different than the other ones.
HC: Yeah, it's literally falling off the bone. Eat the meat and the bone comes away clean.
DB: We could be toothless and it wouldn't matter.
BK: There is some next level wing judo going on here. Bar wing supremacy.
AH: Good size, crisp, moist, rendered skin, flavored meat, great sauce with tang, heat and balance.
HC: And that flavor carries all the way through. Man, the people of Atlanta know their wings. On our Facebook poll, this was far and away the winner.
DB: Flawlessly smoked, yet crispy. And not overly sauced. The Local gets an Ale Sharpton "gangster" rating.
HC: Let the record show that this is day three of our Smackdown, and I was dreading eating wings again, but I just ate five. Also, let the record show that Angela is wearing a terrifying bracelet made of wing bones.
AH: Just for a photo-op. Because these bones come out so clean!
HC: Things have gotten foul.
AH: Heh, heh. Fowl.
4051 Buford Highway N.E. 404-633-2400.
Wing type: Fried
Sauce: House Vietnamese fish sauce
Price: $8.95 for eight wings, plus pickled veggies and rice
Setting: Spacious, kinda retro dining room on Buford Highway
Score: 28.2 out of 30
BK: Oh man, you can look at them and just see the crispness on that skin. And that fish sauce just hits you in the face.
AH: Pickled cabbage is a great accoutrement.
BK: The skin has a sort of caramelized texture to it that none of the others quite get.
AD: But then when you bite in it's so juicy on the inside. I could eat a million of these.
BK: They're not less sweet than any of the others, but since you've got so much going on with the fish sauce and the spiciness, it's all balancing out beautifully.
HC: These are incredible. How have I never eaten these wings before? And they come with rice, which makes me happy.
DB: This really is a wing experience unlike any other.
BK: I was looking at my scores, and there were two places I gave a five for exterior texture, but now I want to bump them down because this is better, like a 5.5 ... or an 11.
AH: This is just right. It has all the components: Crispy skin, and moist meat on the inside with the natural flavor of the chicken coming through, which I don't think is something we've talked about.
HC: Yeah, this chicken tastes notably fresh.
DB: And the medium-bodied sauce is well balanced between sweet and salty with a nice dose of black pepper.
BK: The thing is, they're completely nontraditional, but I think any wing-lover would love these.
AD: I agree with everything Brad said.
AH: These could be a stepping-stone for people to eat Vietnamese food.
HC: Yeah, exactly. Lots of people are scared of fish sauce because of the smell, but I can't imagine anyone not liking these.
HC: Umami, indeed.
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