Tan Vinh: Without fail, I always order a basket of wings when I barhop. It’s usually the best nosh on everyone’s bar menu. Wings have the ideal ratio of crispy skin to meat. They’re the perfect shared plate, too, lending itself to the chummy, communal vibe of catching the big game with friends or an after-work happy hour.
Heaven is when that wing gets coated in batter to give you more surface area to soak up that fiery Buffalo sauce … and here comes the best part: dunking the poultry in the cool blue-cheese dip to douse that four-alarm fire in your mouth.
It’s the world’s best beer food.
I would rank Buffalo wings up there with bourbon and central Texas brisket as great American culinary achievements.
I mean, who doesn’t love wings?
Bethany Jean Clement, that’s who.
Bethany Jean Clement: I love brisket and bourbon and catching the big game with friends and chummy things and fried things and batter and chicken and especially battered-and-fried chicken, but it’s true: I hate wings. If this makes me un-American, so be it. Wings are gross. The meat-to-skin ratio is terrible, Tan — a scrawny little wing is way too much work for what you get! And that tiny bit of meat is riddled with weird sinewy and tendon-y and stringy things, which, as you’ve now witnessed, will gross me out so much that I actually lose my appetite, which never happens.
Also, some wings aren’t even wings! A so-called wing can be a tiny drumstick? What madness is this?! And why are both the wings and drumettes always so small? Where do the bodies of all these tiny chickens go?! It’s deeply disturbing, the whole wings thing.
And no, I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. You should see me deal with a Dungeness crab.
Tan: Blasphemy! I can’t let this go unchallenged. Clear your calendar. A wing excursion is in order. I’m convinced that one out of every three bars hawks wings now. So many to choose from. But I’m going to throw out a wild card …
MARCO POLO BAR & GRILL in Georgetown
5613 Fourth Ave S., Seattle; 206-762-3964; marcopolopub.com; 10 wings for $11.95
Bethany: I love this place. It’s a classic, no-frills, roadhouse-style bar in Georgetown, there since 1950, with the retro indoor-tabletop-fire to prove it. Everyone working was super friendly. And it’s a Washington State University bar, which my dad would’ve deeply appreciated (go Cougars!). They also serve broasted chicken, which, if you’re not familiar, is a kind of pressure-cooked fried chicken that may actually be better than regular fried chicken. But Tan told me before we even darkened the door that Marco Polo’s wings are not broasted. What?!
Tan: What I love about this spot is that the wings are not tossed in Buffalo sauce — the sauce is served on the side. Just before you gnaw one, you dunk it, getting the best of both worlds: the satisfying, crunchy bite to go with that vinegary, hot coating.
Bethany: The sauce’s super-vinegary-spicy heat lets you know you’re very much alive! It’s Marco Polo’s secret recipe. And the thick, extra-crispy-crunchy batter coat on these wings equals sheer delight (even sans broasting). Perfect salt level, too. And double-dipping anything first into Buffalo sauce and then blue-cheese dressing is genius: I applaud this aspect of wingdom so much.
However, I almost immediately encountered sinew. “You’re biting too deep, then,” Tan said. Victim blaming! His were eaten down to the bone.
Tan: I weirdly like that you don’t need to gnaw much to get to the bone. As food historian John T. Edge waxed, “Without the bone, chicken lacks its savory essence, its primal, Henry VIII appeal.”
Bethany: Sure, bring in the big guns, Tan. I’m not saying I don’t like chicken on the bone! I think you witnessed me demolish some broasted chicken right after the wing fail.
Tan: OK. I see it isn’t gonna be easy to convert you. You’re stubborn … but not hopeless. I think. Forget Buffalo wings. I’m calling an audible. On to Little Saigon.
HUE KY MI GIA in Little Saigon and Kent
1207 S. Jackson Street, Suite 101, Seattle, 206-568-1268; ; huekymigia.com; eight wings for $8.50
Tan: Around the country, if you order wings at a Vietnamese restaurant, you get the classic fish-sauce wing (the mainstream often refers to them as Pok Pok wings after the namesake Thai restaurant in Portland). But in Seattle, you need to specify which style of Vietnamese wings you want: the classic fish-sauce wing or the butter wing. The latter, made popular by Vietnamese noodle house Hue Ky Mi Gia, has spawned many copycats around town. These butter-garlic wings have a cult following, especially with line cooks and other restaurant-industry people. Unlike most wings, these aren’t salty, bordering more on the sweet side, since every nook and cranny gets covered in butter. It’s the most aromatic wing, redolent of wok-fried garlic, green onions and chili peppers.
Bethany: Little bits of all those things lie scattered across these gleamingly greasy golden beauties. The thing is, all the toppings fall off when you pick one up — sad. Still, the flavors remain, and these wings possessed more meat on them than those at Marco Polo. And the butteriness is majestic! It tastes like a heart attack, and I mean that in a good way. Tan said he never touches the very basic, bright orange-red sweet-and-sour sauce, but I found it cut through some of the butter factor — plus, if you’re going to eat butter-bird, why not dip it in candy-sauce? You only live once.
Still, even with these plumper wings, eating feels like labor. And the extreme oil factor … who can eat more than a few of these? Tan Vinh, that’s who.
Tan: Sigh. Convincing you is harder than I thought. But I have faith!
A quick story: When I first came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam, fresh off the boat, our sponsor from the Lutheran church took my family to some Golden Corral-like spot in the suburbs. Out came a plate of wings and drumettes covered in radioactive orange sauce. I had never heard of Buffalo wings. I thought this was normal fried chicken, dramatically shrunken down. I was like, “What the hell!” It was like some “Gulliver’s Travels” nightmare. Later that night, I said, “Mom, can we find another church to sponsor us?”
Didn’t touch wings again till college — and I’ve loved them ever since. The moral of this story, Bethany, is that I believe you too will see the light and come around to appreciate the glory of wings … this will require more work, that’s all.
Bethany: The moral of the story would seem to be that wings are so weird, they frightened poor little Tan when things were surely terrifying enough already! I’m sorry! I will absolutely keep trying if it makes you feel any better.
CHAN in Pike Place Market
86 Pine St., Seattle; 206-354-3564; chanseattle.com; six wings for $12 and 12 wings for $21, or four wings for $6 at happy hour (5-6:30 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday)
Bethany: This small spot tucked away in Pike Place Market calls itself a Korean gastropub, and for a place that serves wings, it’s quite fancy — sleek, stylish decor (with a big crowd lining up for the bargain-rate happy hour). The wings here are gorgeous: coated in a high-gloss, deep-orange-red, gochujang-based sauce and sprinkled with bits of peanuts and green onion. A+ for presentation!
Tan: Korean-style wings are popping up on everyone’s happy-hour menu these days. I like chef Heong Soon Park’s interpretation: sort of an East-meets-West wing with some of the DNA of Buffalo-style wings. These sticky wings have the requisite spicy-sweet flavor profile of Korean fried chicken, tweaked with the familiar vinegar tang of ketchup and Tabasco. They have been marinated in buttermilk and double-fried to give you that potato-chip-like level of extra crunchiness.
Also, Bethany, you’re stalling. Your wing verdict?!
Bethany: I wanted to love them! There’s so much goodness here. The prettiness, and the sweet and spicy and fermented flavors all mixing together, and the legitimate heat with that great slow-mouth-burn, and the crunchiness plus the caramelized glaze … these were the messiest wings, too, which I salute. Even though it’s upscale, Chan should get the Wet-Naps out there.
But I still just don’t get wings. The scrawniness and the stringiness … eating a wing is like eating an arm off a T. rex. Don’t you want to bite into the nice plump body or meaty leg? I’d so much rather have a chicken thigh or even a breast — or even-even, I’m just going to say it, a chicken tender. Hello, Ezell’s! And also Sisters and Brothers!
I so appreciated our excursions, though. I’ll go get wings with you anytime … I’m just going to eat something else.
Tan: I raise the proverbial white flag (smeared with a lot of Buffalo sauce).