In his memorable 1980 story for the New Yorker — the one in which he doggedly tried to solve the mystery of who invented Buffalo wings — Calvin Trillin noted that the bar food had not traveled much outside its frigid city of origin.
“There are already some attempts to sell wings outside of Western New York,” Trillin wrote. “A former Buffalonian is serving wings in the Paco’s Tacos outlets of Boston. It is said that wings are available in Fort Lauderdale — where so many Buffalonians have retired that the annual events include a beef-on-weck banquet.”
Nearly four decades later, Buffalo wings are as ingrained in American bar culture as whiskey shots, happy hours and morning-after regrets. They have survived in watering holes where smoking, Keno and CD jukeboxes have either been outlawed or shown the door, and they’ll still be a presence in bars long after Keith Richards has sucked down his last bottle of Jack.
But in their eventual colonization of bars, Buffalo wings have had a secondary, arguably larger impact that few could have seen coming back in the 1980s: Their flavors have hijacked snacks and sandwiches all across the dining landscape, from dingy corner taverns to twee veggie concepts. In Washington alone, you can find Buffalo sauce-flavored pizzas, burgers, chicken sandwiches, tenders, pork rinds, fish sticks, mac and cheese, fried shrimp, mussels and countless other dishes that I have yet to unearth. Your local bar probably has at least three offerings that owe a debt to Buffalo’s love of hot sauce and blue cheese.
There’s no mystery why these Buffalo flavors have roamed so far and wide. Heat is a pub owner’s best friend, second only to salt in encouraging a second, third or I-really-shouldn’t-be-doing-this fourth round of beers. But more than that, the buttery, vinegar-heavy Buffalo sauce can invigorate even the blandest chicken breasts that roll off a Sysco truck, and if there is a better partner for the sauce than a good blue, I can’t think of it. The heat loves nothing more than to cozy up to the cool, creamy, nail-polish pungency of a blue-cheese dressing. Each complements and counterbalances the other.
Chicken is a natural vehicle for Buffalo sauce, far better than red meat or, say, wild-caught shrimp with their sweet, iodine-like flavors. The sauce’s heat and acidity just play better on a chicken sandwich than a ground-beef burger.
That goes double for a fried chicken sandwich. The version at Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken (1308 G St. NW, 202-809-5565; 7511 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, 703-356-0800) comes with two containers, one each for the Buffalo and blue-cheese sauces. The sauces-on-the-side approach offers two distinct advantages over an already-slathered bird: The coating remains crunchy and sog-free, and you can customize your spice experience. Plus, the doughnut bun acts as a royal pillow, serving up your fried chicken on soft, savory slices, the contrast in textures just one more pleasure among many.
The fried chicken tenders at Ventnor Sports Cafe (2411 18th St. NW, 202-234-3070) arrive pre-sauced, which explains why the breading on the oversize logs tends to slide off like snake skin. Still, I’d put these fat, house-made fingers up against the best of them, which happen to be found at Remington’s (11500 Baltimore Ave., 301-937-6809), a like-minded neighborhood sports bar in Beltsville. The tenders at Remington’s have it all: spice, succulence, supernatural crunch and a blue-cheese dipping sauce to temper the heat.
Remington’s also serves one of the few exceptions to my rule that Buffalo sauce prefers bird meat. The pub’s rockfish bites, a metal bucket filled with lengths of fried, Sriracha-glazed fillets, pulls off the near-impossible: It pricks the tongue with pepper spice without obliterating the natural sweetness of Maryland’s state fish.
Which is more than I can say for a special of Buffalo shrimp that I ordered one evening at Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque (220 N. Lee St., Alexandria, 703-535-3340). The vinegary hot sauce waterboarded those poor butterflied and breaded shrimp. They never stood a chance against such torture. That conceptual stumble aside, Mixon’s kitchen has cross-engineered a snack that’s among my current faves in the Buffalo herd: pork rinds drizzled with Tabasco and sprinkled with blue-cheese crumbles, the whole of which delivers a deeper, more tooth-rattling crunch than any fried chicken tender could ever hope to.
Stoney’s (1433 P St. NW, 202-234-1818) is practically a permanent exhibit of Nickel City flavors. The pub serves no fewer than four dishes devoted to Buffalo sauce, including wings, pizza and a chicken sandwich. But the best of the bunch is a Buffalo mac and cheese, a bowl of diced chicken and sauced shells that conceals tiny slivers of celery so you don’t have to hunt down a stalk for a hit of crunchy water. Bonus: The cheese sauce tamps down the heat to a radiant hum, present but not omnipresent.
The mac and cheese at Stoney’s ranks right up there with those already inducted into my Buffalo Hall of Fame. Among the first inductees is the appropriately named Badass at D.C. Empanadas (1309 Fifth St. NE, 703-400-5363) inside Union Market. The crackly pastry shell packs so much tastiness it’s as if the pocket contains a concentrate of chicken, Buffalo sauce and blue cheese. Another inductee is the Buffalo chicken round at Wiseguy NY Pizza (2121 H St. NW, 202-250-5130; 300 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202-408-7800; 1735 N. Lynn St., Arlington, 703-358-8880), a pie that will hypnotize you with its concentric circles of Buffalo and blue-cheese sauces.
The two-fisted flavors of blue-collar Buffalo have also infiltrated the more precious concepts among us, like HipCityVeg (712 Seventh St. NW, 202-621-8057), a fast-casual vegan shop with an operating philosophy and a manifesto to make sure we really feel good about dining there. The eatery sells a sandwich dubbed Buffalo Bella, a fried portobello mushroom with celery slaw, tomato and Buffalo sauce. It has all the bite of a newborn. This concoction is so far removed from Buffalo, it might as well reside in Southern California.