In these uncertain times, it's reassuring to know that, in Chicago, we're never too far away from the comforts of a sloppy, tastebud-numbing session with an order of chicken wings. Be they buffalo or barbecue, garlic or Korean-style, wings hold the distinction of being a food that's all about celebration: Touchdown? Grab a wing! Happy hour? Pass the ranch. Family reunion? Does anyone have a Wet-Nap? In this regard, I guess it could be argued that chicken wings are really the champagne of finger foods. But then again, a lot of things can be argued. I've been eating my way through Chicagoland's premiere wing destinations. Some came up short, some were mediocre, and some warranted repeat (and repeat, and repeat) visits. After countless celery sticks and plenty of finger-licking happy hours, here are my choices for the best wings in town:
Best Selection: Wings Around the World ($6.99/10-wing order)
If you open a chicken restaurant within a stone's throw of a Popeye's and a KFC, you better have the wings to back it up. Featuring a selection that spans from "Cosmic Curry" to "Rum BBQ," "Maple Twist" to "Sweet and Spicy Plum," this Bronzeville take-out joint is a nightmare for the indecisive. But for globe-trotters, sauce-junkies and foodies, WATW is nothing short of the promised land. Flavors are grouped by country, so if you're in the mood for Indian, Japanese, Jamaican — hell, even Canada makes an appearance — all bases are covered. Those chain restaurants never stood a chance.
Best Buffalo: Buffalo Joe's (Evanston) ($6.49/order)
Revered by north suburbanites, college kids and destination eaters alike, this Evanston staple has developed a rabid following of devoted bone-suckers over the years. What keeps 'em coming back? Suicide Wings — the delightfully heated suicide sauce has a Buffalo-authenticity with a dash of honey sweetness, a sprinkling of jalapeno slices and an afterglow that isn't nearly as aggressive as its moniker suggests. Served with an obligatory side of waffle fries, the wings themselves are exactly the right size, deep-fried to crispy perfection and loaded with consistently tender, buttery meat.
Best Korean-style: Great Sea Chinese Restaurant ($10.95/order)
Tucked into a lengthy chicken section on the by-the-number menu at Great Sea, the "Hot & Saucy Chicken Wings" — complete with ominously dangling asterisk — occupy an unassuming line. Despite the Chinese-heavy entree menu, Great Sea has been quietly doling out the best Korean-style chicken wings this side of Seoul for years. Although packed with a sweet soy-barbecue flavor and a fish sauce-infused saltiness, these lollipop-shaped wings are loaded with some powerful kick — courtesy just the right measure of chilies. Expertly fried and boasting more meat than seems natural, this Albany Park den is a must-visit for any true wing fan.
Best Garlic: Gator's Wing Shack ($9/order)
Having enjoyed a seven-year stretch as a winner at Chicago's annual WingFest this tiny suburban chain takes its sauces seriously. No puny pieces here: jumbo-size wings are tossed in BBQ, Honey-Mustard, Buffalo or Jalapeno-Buffalo sauces, but it's the pungent bite of Gator's Garlic-Buffalo version that helps this stand out. Not only is Gator's award-winning buffalo sauce infused with enough garlic to keep vampires (and in all likelihood, your date) at bay, but the stuff is also flecked with sizable chunks of garlic. For those who love garlic and buffalo wings with equal zest, Gator's is the ultimate destination wing shack.
Best Sauce: Crisp ($6.95/5-wing order) The sticky-sweet Crisp BBQ sauce smeared on jumbo wings manages to seamlessly meld the best parts of western and eastern flavors. Perfectly crispy, laced with smoke, and packing some serious sinus-clearing heat, Crisp BBQ wings have raised the bar on North Side wing joints. So much so, that this writer's first visit to the Lakeview eatery went something like this: Nose-deep into my third wing, the proprietor came by to ask how I was enjoying my lunch. Sauce covering my face and hands, and quickly streaming to my elbows, I moaned, "Oh my god, I love it, I love it so much." with great gusto (and a full mouth) before burying my face into wing number four. Suffice to say, I now have the wings delivered.