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One Wing to Rule Them All: DCBeer Finds DC’s Best Buffalo Wings

Ask any number of different people what makes the perfect Buffalo wing, and you will likely get any number of different answers. There’s a lot of different aspects of a Buffalo wing, and people disagree about all of them. The first and most basic aspect is whether the flat or the drum is the best kind of wing. Next is usually the best method for eating wings. After that, there’s no shortage of different things over which to have an argument: the flavor and heat of the sauce, whether the sauce is truly “Buffalo-style” or not, the crispiness of the skin, whether wings should be baked, fried, grilled, or some combination thereof, and that’s all before you even bring blue cheese (or should it be ranch?) into the equation.

Knowing that there’s all of this disagreement about Buffalo wings, DCBeer.com, with the help of our readers and some special guest judges, set off to find out which wings are the best in DC. Here’s a quick recap of the story so far. As you probably remember, we asked you for your help in identifying which bars and restaurants had wings worthy of making it to our second round. You lent us your expertise, casting 223 votes for over a dozen different bars and restaurants. In the end, we took the top six and moved those into the round of judging. Those finalists were: The Big Hunt, The Black Squirrel, Capitol Lounge, ChurchKey, Duffy’s, and Nanny O’Brien’s.

Matt Heffernan (left) and Luke Russert (right) sample wings at The Black Squirrel

With our list of finalists compiled, Andrew and I set off to find two more judges to help us make one of the most important decisions this site has ever had to make. We found two good, make that great ones, to lend us their expertise and palettes. First, NBC’s own Washington correspondent Luke Russert, who has eaten wings all across the country but especially in Buffalo, agreed to lend us his tastebuds. Second, the Smoke and Barrel’s tavernkeeper extraordinaire and founder of BeerPairing.org, Matt Heffernan, brought us his extensive sensory experience and fine-tuned war machine of a palette. Our crack team assembled (this is a team far more competent than what you would find in the motion picture flop Tower Heist), we set off to find the best wings in DC.

A great philosopher never said, “The best Buffalo wing is the one that is in front of me at any given moment,” because great philosophers were generally lame as hell when it came to bar food, but if they hadn’t been, they would have said that. And that is a fundamentally stupid way to think about Buffalo wings when you’re trying to judge them. To get around this problem, we did what all great high school English teachers do in similar wing-eating-and-beer-drinking situations: we made a rubric. This helped us to compare the different wings and to think about each wing in a standardized way. Besides, it gave us a great excuse to use the word “rubric” more times in one day then one legitimately needs to in an entire lifetime.

Here’s what our rubric looked like:

Price: Pretty self-explanatory; the price of an order of wings.
Number of wings per order: The number of wings that come in a standard sized order.
Price per wing: Price/Number of wings per order
Breaded or not: Are the wings breaded before being cooked or not?
Size of wings: 1-10 How big is the average wing in the order? (Judges’ subjective score)
Texture: 1-10 Each judge’s personal satisfaction with the overall texture of the wing (Judges’ subjective score)
Sauce spiciness: 1-10 This score was not included in the aggregate score toward ranking wings because more spicy isn’t necessarily better or worse than less spicy, depending on personal preference.
Wing sauce flavor: 1-10 Each judge’s personal satisfaction with the overall flavor of the wing sauce (Judges’ subjective score)
Blue cheese flavor: 1-10 Each judge’s personal satisfaction with the overall flavor of the blue cheese dressing served with the wings (Judges’ subjective score)
Blue cheese chunkiness: 1-10 This score was not included in the aggregate score toward ranking wings because more chunky isn’t necessarily better or worse than less chunky, depending on personal preference.
Drinkability: 1-10 Each judge’s personal belief about how well the wings complemented beer. For example, was the sauce so hot that drinking an IPA with the wings would make the heat overpowering? Were the wings so flabby that going from the wing texture to a liquid was unpleasant? (Judges’ subjective score)
Overall flavor: 0-5 This was a catch-all category designed to alleviate any flaws in the rubric. Each judge could award up to 5 points to any bar or restaurant’s wings based on merit not accounted for by the rubric’s categories or scales. For example, The Black Squirrel’s sauce lost some points in the “sauce flavor” category, as you’ll see, but all four judges awarded them points in the overall flavor category to make up for that.

Based on all of these categories, we tallied each judge’s scores for each bar/restaurant’s wings according to the following:
Wing Size (10) + Texture (10) + Drinkability (10) + Sauce Flavor (10) + Blue cheese flavor (10) + Overall flavor (5) = 55 total points

We then took the aggregate scores for each judge at each bar, added them up, took the average, and boom, there’s the average score according to which we ranked wings! Ah, science!

So now that we’ve got our background, our judges, and our rubric, let’s get to the actual wings! We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up to the grand champion of wings!

The Big Hunt – Average score 24/55.

It pains me to be writing about The Big Hunt’s wings first, because it means that these wings finished last in our judging. I was surprised by the poor showing in our competition, but the Hunt’s wings did indeed narrowly finish last behind our fifth place wings. This surprised me because I’ve sworn by these wings for a long time. There were some mitigating circumstances here, and I don’t quite think the Hunt’s wings are usually as bad as they were the night we had them. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, the good. One of the best things about the Hunt’s wings is that you get a lot of them. More than a pound. And when they’re good, it’s a never-ending plate of goodness. And when they’re bad…well, it’s bad for a while. So what made them so bad the night we had them? A comment on one rubrics tells the whole fishy tale: “Tastes like crab.” I wasn’t even aware that there was fish on the Hunt’s menu, but the wings the night we had them had a definite “catch of the day” tinge to them. It’s an unsettling flavor, to be certain, when you’re eating chicken, and not even the decent blue cheese could mask it. My personal plea to you would be not to let this showing sink the Hunt’s wings for you. If you go on a non-weekend or non-wing night, get the wings “well done,” so they’re crisped up and not flabby, and they improve dramatically. But if you’re there on a packed Saturday? You might be better off sticking with the great craft beer, especially if there’s anything fishy going on in that wing basket.

Price per order: $7.95
Number of wings per order: 15
Price per wing: $0.53
Average scores for The Big Hunt
Size: 5.25/10
Texture: 3/10
Spiciness: 5.25/10
Drinkability: 4.5/10
Sauce flavor: 3.5/10
Blue cheese flavor: 6/10
Blue cheese chunkiness: 5/10
Overall flavor: 1.75/5

Capitol Lounge – Average score 24.25/55.

Capitol Lounge narrowly beat out the Big Hunt for the ignominy of last place. This Capitol Hill mainstay has been slinging bar food and beers to Hill residents and staffers alike for quite a while and was the only Hill area establishment to be voted into our second round. Unfortunately for us and for Cap Lounge, their wings fell mostly flat for us. Although these wings were the second most cost-effective (behind the Hunt’s) at $0.83 each, they also received the smallest size scores from all four judges. How small were they? I generally like to have wings be somewhere between one and a half and two thumb-widths in width. When I get down to the one thumb-width range, I start wondering if it’s even worth it for me to work to get the little meat there is out of the wing. Luke noted, “These wings were average in a good way. They were as Dennis Green once said ‘who we thought they were.’ Translation, pretty much your generic bar served Buffalo wing. Not too hot, not too mild and surprisingly a fair amount of crispiness. If you’re looking for a safe, dependable wing, I’d say this is the place to find it.”

According to our scores, these were the spiciest wings that we tasted over the course of the day, which was a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, the watery “blue cheese,” which Heff thought might have been Ken’s Steakhouse peppercorn ranch, not actual blue cheese, did little to cut the heat or provide a creamy companion to the wing. While these wings went fine with beer (all four of us had Chocolate City’s ESB), we couldn’t say much about them beyond that they were average dive bar wings. Wings of that variety certainly have their merits, but they don’t do enough to win the moniker of best wings in DC.

Price per order: $10
Number of wings per order: 12
Price per wing: $0.83

Average scores for Capitol Lounge
Size: 3.5/10
Texture: 5.25/10
Spiciness: 8/10
Drinkability: 6/10
Sauce flavor: 6.5/10
Blue cheese flavor: 1.5/10
Blue cheese chunkiness: 1/10
Overall flavor: 1.5/5

Duffy’s – Average score 26/55.

This result may come as a shock to many in the DC Buffalo wing appreciation community. I can already hear the gnashing of teeth, stamping of feet, and clicking X of browsers happening out there in Internet land. After all, Duffy’s has won the Washington City Paper Best Wings Award for umpteen (read: four) years running. Well, that is that and this is this, says Modest Mouse, we’ll tell you what we had and Duffy’s wings we would not miss. Let’s start at the very beginning. Step away from the Internet, take a deep breath, and let this statement be a caveat for the rest of this review. Duffy’s wings are not Buffalo wings. We were hesitant to even include them in this contest for that reason. What defines a Buffalo wing? Hard to say, and it’d be a real pissing match to try to say definitively. However, we can confidently conclude that whatever a Buffalo wing is, Duffy’s wings are not that. What Duffy’s wings are, however, is big, spicy, and loaded with black pepper. “I went into Duffy’s with high hopes,” said Luke, “I left just plain confused. We ordered spicy Buffalo wings, instead it felt like the wings were drenched in a spicy Italian arrabbiata that tasted nothing like Buffalo sauce. While it surely was a spirited attempt at being different, I think Buffalo wings should taste like Buffalo hot sauce not an Italian meal.”

This video perfectly describes Andrew’s thoughts as he ate the Duffy’s wings. (Safe for work, it’s an SNL skit.) If you’re a fan of black pepper, you’ll absolutely love these wings. You’ll also love them if you like crispy wings, because these definitely had a bit of a crunch to them. They went nicely with the pitcher of Natty Boh we downed, but not so perfectly that we wanted to clean the plate. This was the first plate which went against our “No Wing Left Behind” policy. Why was that? My personal guess is because the wing looked like the bad half of Two-Face the Batman villain. Earlier in the day I had cleaned and quartered two chickens, and the wings I clumsily cut looked only marginally worse than the wounded wing we left behind. What Duffy’s lacked in wings, it more or less made up for in atmosphere. A fun neighborhood bar, there were lots of people there to watch college football and split pitchers with friends. Its location right by the 9:30 Club makes it a perfect place to stop in before a show for a plate of pepper topped with chicken wings. How can you not smell all that peppah?

Price per order: $8.95
Number of wings per order: 12
Price per wing: $0.75

Average scores for Duffy’s
Size: 7.25/10
Texture: 4.75/10
Spiciness: 7/10
Drinkability: 4.25/10
Sauce flavor: 3.5/10
Blue cheese flavor: 5.25/10
Blue cheese chunkiness: 3.25/10
Overall flavor: 1/5

Intermission

We’ve reached the halfway mark for this little jaunt through DC’s best wings. This halfway point is a clear demarcation between the wings that fared well on our rubric and those that didn’t. In case you think we’re being overly critical thus far, remember that these are still probably some of the best wings in DC, even if they’re on the bottom half of our list. These were the best wings as voted by you, the readers, which means enough people like them to put them in the top six of 12+ different bars and restaurants. While the bars in 4th through 6th place are on the bottom of our rankings, they’re likely still among the best city-wide, and that’s important to remember. Now, onto the top three!

Nanny O’Brien’s – Average score 33/55.

Nanny’s is a Cleveland Park institution, and their wings have a huge following as evidenced by the social media push that resulted in a wave of votes. They were number two according to reader votes and number three according to our rubric. So how are the wings? Pretty tasty. Only three of us scored these (Luke didn’t join up with us until The Black Squirrel), but we were all pretty impressed. These were the the best “traditional bar wings” that we had all day. They were also the priciest per wing that we had all day. The wing portion of Nanny’s plate was pretty solid, but the blue cheese portion really dragged the score down.

Nanny’s does the hard parts correctly. They serve a crispy, decent sized wing. The sauce has some kick, but isn’t too spicy; it’s sneaky how their heat creeps up on you. Wings and sauce done right, and then you serve blue cheese without good flavor that’s smooth as suntan lotion, well, it makes your judges cry a little bit. You might think there’s no crying in an Irish pub, but you’d be wrong. We just had to hide our tears behind the chotchkies and our perfectly poured pints of Guinness. There’s no way around it for us, though, the blue cheese dressing is a critical part of the whole wing experience. Let us let you in on a little secret though…if you’re looking for great wings (skip the blue cheese) in a fun environment (with a good craft beer selection and/or Natty Boh if you’re inclined that way), then Nanny’s won’t let you down. Stop in on Wednesday night for $0.25 wings, or drop by on Mondays at 9pm for a traditional Irish jam band.

Price per order: $10.00
Number of wings per order: 8
Price per wing: $1.25

Average scores for Nanny O’Brien’s
Size: 6.33/10
Texture: 6.67/10
Spiciness: 6.67/10
Drinkability: 6.67/10
Sauce flavor: 6.67/10
Blue cheese flavor: 3.67/10
Blue cheese chunkiness: 3.67/10
Overall flavor: 3/5

The Black Squirrel – Average score 36.25/55.

The Black Squirrel’s wings, like Duffy’s, also don’t fit the traditional conception of Buffalo wings. Unlike Duffy’s, that’s okay by us. Let’s start with the first thing we noticed as the wings hit our table: the distinctively un-Buffalo aroma wafting up off of our appetizer. That aroma, which comes from the signature spice blend, lent our noses cumin, curry powder, and the sharp spiciness of chili. Chef Gene Sohn said to us via email, “As a local, I grew up with Old Bay seasoning. Ours is similar but with more garlic and some other secret stuff.” The Squirrel’s site describes their wings as, “Twice cooked to be extra crispy and dipped in your choice of homemade Sriracha hot-wing sauce or BBQ sauce and topped with our signature spice blend.” Chef Sohn told us, “I believe a great wing should be crispy on the outside and moist and juicy inside. We start off with a higher quality wing (we use organic “Smart Chickens”) and pre-poach them with herbs and mirepoix. Then fry them to order with fresh thyme til crisp.” Note to all of you out there: twice cooking for extra crispiness is a big plus in our book. There was a nice crunchiness as we bit into our flats and drums, and the meat inside was still moist, hot, and very flavorful.

That contrast of textures gave us a lot to think about before we even started thinking about the sauce or blue cheese. And oh the sauce and the blue cheese. Sriracha lends these wings heat without the vinegary kick that traditional Buffalo wings have. Instead of that vinegary bite, we instead got real back-of-the-throat chili heat mixed with the exotic profile from the spice blend. Chef Sohn noted, “The sauce is a fond de veau base(veal Demi-glacé), I like spicy but not too much heat to over power any flavors.”

The blue cheese here is great, too. Really pungent, true blue cheese flavor, with a rocky road of little cheese bits dispersed throughout and a thick, creamy texture that helps defuse the not inconsiderable spice. Overall, this is an admirable effort. The complexity of these wings won the group over and were well worth the $1.14 per wing. Though these aren’t Buffalo wings, per se, they hit high notes in a number of areas and are worthy of your attentions. This is especially true when you consider the Squirrel’s extensive beer menu. Whether you take your wings with a complementary Pilsner, heat-intensifying IPA, or cooling malty beer, the Squirrel has something (and probably a number of somethings) to pair with your plate.

Price per order: $8.00
Number of wings per order: 7
Price per wing: $1.14

Average scores for The Black Squirrel
Size: 5.25/10
Texture: 7.75/10
Spiciness: 4.25/10
Drinkability: 6.5/10
Sauce flavor: 5.25/10
Blue cheese flavor: 7.25/10
Blue cheese chunkiness: 5.5/10
Overall flavor: 4.25/5

ChurchKey – Average score 41.38/55.

ChurchKey's wings are the best in DC according to DCBeer.com

At the Big Hunt, our last stop of the day after a six stop, eight hour sojourn across six different DC neighborhoods, your four intrepid judges looked at each other, hoisted pints (including Luke’s first Bell’s Two Hearted ever!), and toasted the conclusion we had come to: ChurchKey has far and away the best Buffalo wings in DC. At this point, we were all glad to reach a unanimous conclusion but fully anticipated pushback. After all, the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about ChurchKey is probably its beer, not its food, but we’re encouraging you to change that and think “beer” then “Buffalo wings” then everything else. Let’s break it down.

First, ChurchKey’s wings are the only ones we tried from the “breaded” style, and I think the breading is key here because it soaks in all of the delicious sauce and still maintains a wonderful crispiness. In fact, give the wings five to six minutes to soak all of that in (if you can wait that long), and you will be rewarded with a flood of sauce flavor. Texture received an average score of 8.25/10 from us, and sauce flavor was just a little over an 8/10 on average. Hard numbers to beat, since only the Squirrel came close in texture and only Nanny’s came close in sauce flavor. The sauce has the quintessential spicy, cayenne vinegary mix that true wing fanatics know, love, and crave near-constantly. That sauce tag teams with the stinky, chunky, thick, handmade blue cheese dressing for a perfect bite that we kept wanting to go back to.

These wings surprised us. Luke admits, “When I saw wings on the menu at ChurchKey, I was expecting some sort of overly gourmet hipster adaption of a Buffalo wing. Instead, I was greeted with a phenomenal presentation of crispiness with a delicious buttery sauce that had the perfect amount of spice. If you’re looking for a high end wing, one that even the most snotty foodie might appreciate it—head to Churchkey. It also helps that their wings are a perfect complement to their vast array of brews.”

The secret is in the simplicity, according to ChurchKey executive chef Kyle Bailey. “For the wings (and all the other food) at ChurchKey, we make sure that the simplicity of the dish comes through. We dredge and fry the wings in house and we never use any preservatives, fillers, or other non-food bullshit,” he said to us in an email. Beer director Greg Engert echoed this sentiment: “I think what sets us apart is that we do not strive for esoteric-haute cuisine at CK, but rather concentrate on hand-crafting classic, approachable food with great technique and the finest ingredients.” The sauce that is so perfect? You can buy it off the shelf. Says Chef Bailey: “The sauce is Frank’s Red Hot and butter. Very simple so that the wings speak for themselves. We fry to order and sauce to order.” Simple and very delicious.

There are seven wings to an order at ChurchKey, and the man who drew the short straw and didn’t get a second (Heff, in this case), really missed out on something wonderful. Try not to look at the bottom of the bowl once you’ve had your way with the meat and gnawed on the bones; part of the reason these taste so good is almost assuredly the butterfat that mixes with the wing sauce. But our heart health made no matter when we were eating these wings, the best we had on Wing Day, and, by our estimation, the best in Washington, DC.

Price per order: $8.50
Number of wings per order: 7
Price per wing: $1.21
Average scores for ChurchKey
Size: 6.25/10
Texture: 8.25/10
Spiciness: 6.25/10
Drinkability: 7.5/10
Sauce flavor: 8.13/10
Blue cheese flavor: 7.25/10
Blue cheese chunkiness: 6.75/10
Overall flavor: 4/5

Congratulations to ChurchKey for their victory! As Chef Bailey noted, “A great beer bar shouldn’t have the food as an afterthought.” We couldn’t agree more and are glad to see that this philosophy is bringing us a great example of one of our favorite foods!

And so our search for DC’s best wings comes to an end for now. It was a hell of a quest and a very enjoyable time. Andrew and I want to thank our judges, Luke and Heff, for their help in lending us their tastebuds. We also want to thank all of the readers who participated in the poll that sent us to the above restaurants! We hope you enjoyed our little experiment and look forward to bringing you future examinations for finding DC’s best. Barbecue is up next! Get hungry!

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