Wings of desire–a love story

I consider myself to be, in large part, a son of Buffalo. It’s true I was not born there, but my parents were, and lived there until after their marriage, and throughout my boyhood we made frequent trips to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I moved there in the summer of 1979, right before my senior year of high school, lean and hungry and open to new experiences. I’d sampled wings (as they are known in Buffalo—also, occasionally as “chicken wings” or maybe “hot wings,” but never as “Buffalo wings”) before but they’d never really compelled me until I moved there. Buffalo was surprisingly rich in distinct little foodways unique to Western New York, and at the time wings were just one of a number of regional specialties I devoted myself to exploring. I lived in a small town at the outermost edge of Buffalo’s eastern suburbs, one which at the time had an abbreviated rim of suburban development beside an expanse of farmland that rolled almost uninterrupted north and east to Lake Ontario and Rochester. Near the outer edge of this development, hard by the main town park, was Teso’s Pizza Café, a still-new establishment that had swiftly become a favorite of the town’s high school students. A favorite, that is, until we turned 18, which at that time was New York’s legal drinking age. Until then, Teso’s was it.

            At this remove I can’t hope to remember how many dozens of wings I ate that year. I never got to the Anchor Bar, the birthplace of the hot wing, which was deep in Buffalo proper; my family, which had dispersed out of North Buffalo to a variety of suburban towns ringing the city, favored the wings at a place called Duff’s, which now claims that “everyone in the world knows the Anchor Bar, but everyone in Buffalo knows Duff’s.” I ordered wings pretty much everywhere I went out to eat, and it was hard to find bad ones, but Teso’s became the place I ate them most often. I went there with my family, I went there with my friends, but best of all, I went there with my new girlfriend. She was a junior, a very serious girl with green eyes and a great laugh and tastes far more cultivated than mine in almost every respect. She merely condescended to wings. I would order a dozen and they would come (as they always came) to the table with a quantity of celery sticks and a small cup of chunky blue cheese dressing. She might have a wing or two, but it amused her to watch me cover the lower half of my face in orange hot sauce while she crunched through the celery, with an occasional dip into the blue cheese. Perhaps this was the reason I’ve largely eschewed eating wings with blue cheese or other embellishments over the intervening years—I looked at it as hers, not to be poached on our sullied by a dip from one of my wings.

            At the time, I thought this was a nearly perfect arrangement—I got the wings, she got the celery, and we each had what we preferred. I was, it turns out, wrong—it was not actually a nearly perfect arrangement, as much as I wished it were so. But at the time, I couldn’t get enough—they were hot, sharp, overwhelming, even. Addictive. I had no self control, and I had no desire for self control. Many nights at Teso’s, a mere dozen would not be enough.

            Flash forward six years, most of which I spent in St. Louis, a pleasant town with a few nice places to eat but for the most part a culinary backwater. Through most of the early 80s, wings remained what they’d always been, a local phenomenon confined to Western New York, but things were starting to change. The country was becoming more prosperous and people were starting to eat out more, and regional specialties began to appear on the menus of both fast-proliferating chain restaurants and those local places willing to broaden their bill of fare. This became vividly apparent when I left sleepy St. Louis, with its sole sushi bar and one lonely Thai restaurant, and came to Chicago in January of 1986. Another woman was involved—in this case, a slim architect eager to find work in one of the world’s great centers of architecture. I joined her in her large bi-level studio at State and Ontario, in a historically significant building. We each found work in our chosen fields, and we dove into our life together the way eager, ambitious, and mostly broke young people always have. There was a premium on finding good cheap places to eat, and these were plentiful in River North. We ate lots of great Thai (no shortage of that in Chicago—there were four Thai places in a two-block radius around our apartment) and lots of deep dish. We spent a great deal of time together, which is not hard to do in a one-room apartment, however large that room. A fantastic neighborhood Mexican place opened up a few blocks away, right across the street from her office on Clark Street, and we went there several times for chips and margaritas—until it got written up in the New York Times, and suddenly Frontera Grill became much tougher to get into after work.

            Around the corner, though, on Hubbard, was a bar and grill marked by a big sign featuring a big pair of disembodied lips being wetly licked by a big tongue. This fit right in on that stretch of Hubbard, which leaned heavily toward peep shows and strip clubs. It was called Hot Licks, and it was the first place I found in Chicago that served hot wings like the ones I remembered from Buffalo. My girlfriend didn’t particularly like hot wings, but she was OK with celery and blue cheese, and she liked a good burger, which Hot Licks also did well. We spent many evenings there after work, eating and drinking beer with our new friends, and I rekindled my passion for wings. Theirs were the hottest I ever remember eating—I would reel into the men’s room, dizzy, sweating, my lips and tongue on fire, and splash cold water on my face. And go back to the table for more.

            Hot Licks is long gone now. Its sister joint, Frankie Z’s, used to serve the same wings for a while out of its space around the corner on Clark, but then it too succumbed to the relentless upscaling of River North. The architect and I parted ways, and I learned (I hope) more about relationships in general and the challenges posed to young couples by living in one-room apartments in particular.

            I moved to the north side. I met a few more women, none of whom I recollect having an opinion on wings. Before long I got a new job in Evanston, working out of the Fountain Square Building at Davis and Sherman. Wings were starting to crop up on still more menus, but in Evanston I found something new. Something special. A place opened just south and west of the Northwestern campus that proudly claimed the chicken wing as its specialty of the house. I mean, of course, Buffalo Joe’s, which now boasts a quarter-century heritage of feeding college and high school students from its storefront on Clarke Street west of Sherman (and later its outposts on Green Bay Road and Howard Street).

            As the years unfolded, Buffalo Joe’s went from a phenomenon to an institution. It set an admirable standard, adhering to a traditional, unadorned Buffalo-style wing that found a large, enduring, and very partisan following. At the same time, across the country, as the 80s turned into the 90s, and then the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the lowly wing—essentially, tavern food from a small and not particularly distinguished Rust Belt city—began to ascend to unprecedented heights of popularity. It became (as it remains) a staple of the appetizer lists at most casual or bar and grill-type restaurants. As the chain restaurants flourished, they extended the wing’s reach even further. Beyond that, a few chains began to establish themselves that, like Buffalo Joe’s, built their identity around the wing. One called itself BW3 and followed the time-tested Domino’s business model of opening up outlets near college campuses. As it grew, it changed its name, becoming known as Buffalo Wild Wings. By the time the 2000s came along, the wing had become ubiquitous–as had the much-mocked sobriquet “Buffalo wing.”

            While working in Evanston, I met another woman, a schoolteacher who worked at Evanston Township High School and who had grown up very nearby. As it turns out, she doesn’t much care for chicken wings, though she has nothing against celery and can kind of take or leave the blue cheese. We had a rocky courtship, but I’d accumulated enough experience by now to realize that what we had was worth enduring a pretty considerable quantity of rockiness. Reader, I married her, and since then have devoted myself to exploring everything necessary to make a relationship happy and successful. I left that Evanston-based job, and with it my easy access to Buffalo Joe’s, but after starting a family, we moved to Evanston in 1998, and a few years after that I started Agate here as well. Since then, I have had occasion to eat plenty of chicken wings—my daughter likes them, and my son loves them. Fortunately for us, Evanston has become something of a wing oasis. Buffalo Joe’s is going strong. A few years ago, southwest Evanston was graced with the opening of a Wingstop franchise on Main just east of McCormick. Buffalo Wild Wings opened a massive outpost just north of the Century 16 theater on Maple. And most recently, Wings over Evanston opened at Emerson and Ridge. That’s four wing places in a town of under 80,000. What riches are ours to celebrate! And that doesn’t even include all the great wings served at non-wing-dedicated places.

            As we prepare for the 2012 Evanston Wing-off, it seemed appropriate to reflect on what brought me to this moment, and this opportunity. When I sit at the judging table, tasked with my fellows to determine the best wing in Evanston, I will bring almost 30 years of devotion to the effort. I can’t wait. After all these years, the heat—and the responding passion—is unabated. Love is served by the dozen.

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