I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater, or at least one with diverse tastes. I’ve eaten beef tongue, guinea pig, sweetbreads and kangaroo; if a menu has pork belly, duck, lamb or marrow on it, I have to order it. All four, and I nearly faint with joy and indecision.
But my standby food, the one I go back to time and time again, is chicken. Boring old chicken. It’s easy to cook, easy to eat. Give me some chicken on the bone, dark meat only, and I could eat it nearly every day and not get sick of it. When I was a kid, my parents joked that I loved chicken so much, in a former life I must have been a fox. (Not that kind of fox. Shut up, it’s my parents we’re talking about.) Once, on a visit to relatives, I asked my aunt to make me fried chicken skin — just the skin. I was two.
Therefore, it’s only natural that I’m a big fan of chicken wings. They’re bite-size, dark-meat chicken on the bone that you’re supposed to eat with your hands, and they have almost as much skin on them as they do meat. What’s not to love?
When I decided to write about wings in New York City, I knew one place I had to hit was Bonnie’s Grill in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Not only is it consistently named as one of the best places for Buffalo wings in New York, but it’s also in Brooklyn (represent). I’d had a delicious burger at Bonnie’s once, but I’d never had the famed wings.
So off to Park Slope I went, meeting up with my friend Kevin, renowned Buffalo native and wings aficionado, not to mention a guy who likes interviewing celebrities while eating wings.
Now, I need to mention that though I love wings, Buffalo wings are not my favorite. I’ll let you catch your breath after that soul-shuddering gasp. There’s a good reason, though: The best Buffalo wings are hot ones, and I’m a wimp when it comes to spicy foods. It used to be that I didn’t enjoy eating anything with the slightest bit of heat. But I hate not liking any kind of food, so at one point I trained myself to be able to tolerate spiciness, exposing myself to it a little at a time, much as I once conquered my fear of roller coasters.
These days I won’t automatically skip over any menu item with a pepper next to it, as I used to do, but I still have a low threshold for heat. While I can handle “mild” or even “medium,” “hot” is beyond me. This makes me something of an anomaly in my family, as my parents and older brother will happily gnosh on chili peppers like they’re gum. But I’ve never understood the appeal of eating something so hot, it blows out your taste buds and makes you cry. I’d rather ride a roller coaster. At least on a roller coaster, screaming, crying and vomiting are all publicly acceptable reactions.
Here’s where Kevin came in, because, as an expert on Buffalo wings, he’s a “the hotter, the better” kind of eater. He told me that Bonnie’s Grill, a small, diner-y place with turquoise walls, retro-red chairs and a long counter facing the the grill, is a Buffalo joint, owned by a Buffalo native. During football season, Bills fans congregate at Bonnie’s to watch games. The first time Kevin had wings there, he told the kitchen guys to make them “the hottest you can,” and they regarded him skeptically but then dumped the sauce in, and even he couldn’t handle how pain-inducing they were. So now he only orders “hot,” which isn’t even the hottest they come (that would be “hotter — if you dare,” as the menu puts it), and for him, that’s saying something.
We ordered a plate of wings, medium, with an extra bowl of “hot” sauce for Kevin, as well as fries, bottles of Labatt and beef on weck — a sandwich of sliced roast beef on a caraway bun with horseradish, described by Kevin as “Buffalo’s unheralded cuisine.” Though the sandwich wouldn’t make me pass up a burger, it was tasty and satisfying, with the caraway seeds giving it an intriguing tang. The fries were uniformly excellent, piping hot and cooked exactly the way I like them, crispy on the outside and just the right amount of creamy soft on the inside.
As for the wings, they were that deep orangey color that all Buffalo wings should be, cooked but not overcooked to a nice crunch, laden with flavor, slathered in sauce, so much so that the tabletop was peppered with orangey napkins by the end of the meal. Interestingly, though, as I sat there wiping/licking my fingers for the millionth time thinking “boy, these wings are so saucy,” Kevin said that these weren’t his favorite Buffalo wings because they weren’t saucy enough. I couldn’t even imagine how much sauce would be sufficient for him. Perhaps rolls of paper towels would be required.
Upon looking at the picture below, though, I can see that it’s not pooling any sauce on the plate, which is often what happens with a plate of Buffalo wings. Point to Kevin. (To be fair to Bonnie’s wings, I wonder whether more sauce would start to make the wings soggy.)
Heat-wise, the medium wings were just right for me, spicy but not unbearably so. At one point, however, I made the mistake of absent-mindedly dipping a fry in the bowl of hot sauce, then popping it into my mouth. (A friend to whom I later told this story reacted in horror: “Why would you do that?!”) I immediately went blind. For the next fifteen minutes I could taste nothing at all; my entire mouth was just Frank’s hot sauce and tires exploding and sunburns peeling and rage. I wondered if this was what circus fire-eaters experience when they stick torches down their throats. They probably love Buffalo wings.
As I mentioned, although the hot-sauce taste of Buffalo wings isn’t my go-to flavor profile, Bonnie’s has a classic Buffalo wing — crisp, fiery, with a decent sauce-to-fingers ratio — that should satisfy anyone wanting the real deal. And I’m always going to enjoy the casual, “hanging in a kitchen” vibe of Bonnie’s, though arriving there early is the way to go, as the long wait later in the night can be irritating.
Kevin and I had a rousing conversation over our wings, fries, beef on weck and Labatts, and afterward we got a nightcap at the just-opened Beauty Bar in Brooklyn, which had a nice beer selection and wasn’t remotely as cheesy as the Manhattan branch. In the end, I realized that no matter the quality of the wings, what makes the experience even better is eating them with someone who digs wings as much as you do. All in all, it was a fine night. Good night, Brooklyn. Good night, Buffalo.
278 Fifth Avenue between Garfield and 1st Street
Park Slope, Brooklyn