I have never been a fan of chicken wings. I grew up in a family of six when the only way to buy chicken was whole, to be cut into pieces by whoever was cooking. So when we ate chicken, the wings were in play. I always thought they were too much trouble for such a small amount of meat. Not nearly so worthy as, say, the wishbone.
You'll be hard-pressed to find the wishbone anywhere these days, but chicken wings seem to be just about everywhere, essential fare at tailgate parties and anywhere people gather to watch sports, especially football. In other words, it's Buffalo chicken wing season.
Now, former Redskins greats Art Monk, Darrell Green and Charles Mann have gotten into the chicken wing act, and that's what caught my attention.
The MGM group, as the former players are known these days, has partnered with Kwasi Koranteng in his two-year-old Wings restaurant in Sterling. The sports figures claim that Wings' wings are the best around.
I might not be a fan, but I've had wings at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, where the craze began in the mid-1960s. I decided to try the fare at Wings and a couple of its Northern Virginia competitors, Buffalo Wing Factory & Pub and Buffalo Wing University, which I later learned have family ties, though not corporate ones.
Koranteng, a veteran of restaurant kitchens, chose his location because it was a new building and he lives in the neighborhood.
"I can just walk in and out," said Koranteng, who knew his neighbors could be a great client base.
The Ghana native, now a U.S. citizen who has lived in the United States for 20 years, has children in local schools, and he was counting on their friends and their friends' parents becoming customers, too.
Wings' bright and airy dining room is decorated with just a couple of Redskins items, including a framed photo of Koranteng with his new partners. It's a small restaurant and takeout, not a sports bar.
"That's what attracts many families," Koranteng said. "There is no smoking and no drinking."
The restaurant's proximity to Route 7 also makes it convenient for commuters to stop on the way home and pick up phoned-in orders, Koranteng said.
The menu includes sandwiches, subs and burgers. But the main attraction is the wings, which Koranteng said are marinated in seasonings before being cooked to order. They are served with a choice of hot sauces -- mild, hot and suicidal -- as well as spicy honey, honey barbecue, and sweet and sour.
The wings, especially those with the suicidal sauce, are a good approximation of the Buffalo originals. The wings are not greasy, the meat is juicy and flavorful, and the sauce is fiery without overwhelming the taste of the chicken.
I fell in love with what some restaurateurs say is the new chicken wing: Buffalo chicken fingers, strips of boneless breast meat prepared like the famous wings. At Wings, the chicken strips are battered before they are deep-fried. Even without sauce, they beat any of the chicken fingers I have had at such national chains as Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, McDonald's and KFC. The crust is crisp and the chicken is moist and juicy, and when dunked in that suicidal sauce, they have made a Buffalo chicken finger fan of me.
The chicken fingers at Buffalo Wing Factory & Pub are even larger than at Wings, though they had been cooked maybe 30 seconds too long and lacked the crispy crust. Again, doused with the Factory's X-hot sauce, they captured the spirit, if not the physical attributes, of the Buffalo originals. I didn't taste much difference between the Factory's wings and those at Wings.
The original Buffalo Wing Factory & Pub opened 17 years ago on West Church Road in Sterling. Mike Al-Atari, the current owner, bought the restaurant in the late 1990s at the urging of his children, who were frequent customers of the original owners. Now the Al-Ataris have four locations: Ashburn opened three years ago, Reston in February and Chantilly in March.
The Buffalo Wing Factory & Pub emphasizes its variety of sauces (more than 30), the different beers on tap (more than 30), the number of TV screens (more than a dozen) and its no-smoking environment. There are mild, hot, X-hot, 911, torrid zone and flatliner versions of the hot sauce and a little bit of every other kind of sauce you might want, including spicy ranch, garlic butter and honey mustard.
Eat 10 chicken wings drenched in the flatliner sauce and your name is added to a board on prominent display. There are video games for children and children's menu selections, but basically this is a sports bar, with a wide-ranging menu in addition to the chicken wings.
Buffalo Wing University, with a single location in downtown Fairfax City, has its own off-the-scale-of-hotness sauce (supposedly 500 times spicier than Tabasco) called DOA, for dead on arrival. Eat 10 wings drenched in DOA and you get your name on a board (only eight people in 15 months have accomplished that feat) and win a T-shirt.
Opened in June 2004, Buffalo Wing University is owned by John Atari, of the same family that owns Buffalo Wing Factory. Buffalo Wing University is also primarily a sports bar with an extensive menu, including pizzas, and draws heavily on the George Mason University crowd. The chicken fingers are also a specialty, deep-fried to a light golden brown with a delicate crust that is marred by too much salt.
The chicken wings are well prepared, but the main attraction is the array of sauces.
All the restaurants use only fresh ingredients and prepare all the food to order, which means a 10- to 15-minute wait for a call-ahead pickup order. All are busiest on Redskins game days.
Wings 46839 Maple Leaf Pl. (off Augusta Road), Sterling, 703-433-0730, www.wingsrestaurant.net. Hours: noon-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, noon to 10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, noon-8 p.m. Sundays. Wings, six for $3.95; chicken fingers, four for $5.75. Accessible to people with disabilities.
Buffalo Wing Factory & Pub 45529 W. Church Rd., Sterling, 703-406-0505; 13067 Lee Hwy., Chantilly, 703-263-0202; 2260-D Hunters Woods Plaza, Reston, 703-390-9015; 43761 Parkhurst Plaza, Ashburn, 703-729-4200, www.buffalowingfactory.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. Wings, 10 for $6.99; chicken fingers, five for $6.99. Accessible to people with disabilities.
Buffalo Wing University 10312 Willard Way (Courthouse Plaza Shopping Center), Fairfax City, 703-273-6336, www.buffalowing.net. Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays, noon-11 p.m. Sundays. Accessible to people with disabilities.