Classic Buffalo = Lagers, especially Pilsners
The classic wing should have some heat, but not an invasive amount. Cayenne pepper is the main flavor component in play here. It should linger, give a high note to cut through the wing’s greasiness and provide a consistent, mellow burn.
The one locale to seek out for classic Buffalo is a no-brainer, and possibly the most recommended joint in town for wings. Runyon’stells us the success of their “award winning 25-year recipe” is about little more than being choosy about their chicken and cleaning their fryers every day. It’s that simple.
Generally, we found lagers better suited to Buffalo wings than ales, since more pronounced hops have a way of amplifying and clashing with spice. Runyon’s is a little shy in the craft lager department, but you can grab a Schell’s Firebrick. The toasty, crisp Vienna lager makes for an able companion. Of course, a Grain Belt could be an even more philosophically appropriate choice.
Hot Wings = Session Ales
Can we please resolve that food, even lowly bar food, should not be a travail? Yes, spice is a good thing. Even a lot of heat, in the right context, can make for a spectacular plate of wings. But there’s something about the face-melting, habanero-laden, “eat-these-and-you’ll-get-a-T-shirt” hot wings we find pretty distasteful. Eating shouldn’t be about proving anything to anybody.
So the problem with hot wings is finding some that involve heat for flavor’s sake, not crazy heat for the sake of some challenge. That’s why we like Shamrocks and The Nook, since the sister restaurants have the same wing program. They serve a much spicier standard Buffalo wing that most, but their Hot Damn wings are the real deal. You get the vegetal tang from the habanero, followed by a building heat that takes up a stubborn residence on your palate.
The right beer for hot wings should be sessionable, obviously, because you’ll need more than one. It needs to be light and refreshing, without too much bite, because your palate has already been shocked into submission. Give us a couple pints of Summit’s Meridian Session Ale and watch us sweat and smolder.
Asian Wings = Brown Ales
When gastropubs gussy up a wing, it’s often oyster sauce, ginger, garlic and sesame that affords them the license. But since Chinese restaurants already make the best Chinese chicken, applying the technique to wings should be a cinch. That’s why we can’t get enough of the Cashew Wings at Rainbow Chinese. They’re basically bone-in Kung Pao, with the same crunchy, sticky texture, dripping in a heady sauce and covered with scallions.
For beer, we need something with the body to meet those bold flavors. Let’s go with an ale, since Asian wings tend to be much less spicy. Some sweeter or caramel malt would be nice, something both massive and refreshing. We spy Surly Bender on tap and the pair is dead on.
We also dig the wok-fried Oyster Wings at Thanh Do and the ginger-garlic wings on happy hour at Sea Change. Or, if you’re in the DIY mood, search the Internet for Andrew Zimmern’s one pot Malaysian wings – they’re easy to make and absolutely killer.
Un-Sauced Wings = IPA
Here, we enter and draw back the curtain. Dry rubs and post-fryer spice blends leave nowhere for sub-par chicken to hide. During our research, we actually found the most sensational wings in town belong in this category.
The lauded Beijing-style wings at Monte Carlo are generously bulbous, with a crispy, salty crackle and an absurdly moist interior. The spices are beguiling. Is it cinnamon? Fennel? Cumin? It’s probably those and about a dozen others. But even better are the seasoned wings at Spring Street Tavern. The spice coating is more peppery and herbal. The crust is a touch crispier, but it’s the ambiance, or lack of it, that contributes to a more authentic wing experience.
The right beer in this case needs to sever the fattiness and contend with an often salty and gritty coating. A bitter and citrusy IPA will enliven the spice and help wash the palate clean. Get a Summit Sága with the seasoned wings at Spring Street. You may be the only one there not drinking High Life. But with that combo in hand, you’ll be living it.
John Garland also writes about food and drink for the Heavy Table