Downtown Albany’s Best Wings
Last Saturday, seven people gathered together at Stacks Espresso’s new Broadway shop to fuel up before embarking on the Tour de Wing: Downtown Albany Edition.
We had a plan of attack. The group would divide into two. One group (Team Enchanted City) would start at the north end of the route at Graney’s Stout, and the other group (Team Yelp Elite) would start at the tour’s southernmost spot, Hill Street Cafe. At each stop we would ask for an order of medium wings, crispy. A lot of thought went into the order. But I’ll spare you the analysis of that for right now.
The wings were evaluated based on their skin, meat, and sauce. Those factors were considered in coming up with an overall wing score. Then we looked at criteria like the side vegetables and the dip. And those factors were included in a final overall score that took into consideration the totality of the experience.
In the end everyone survived the tour, and I collected six fully completed scoresheets. The missing sheet was from Doctor Irritation, who was on Team Enchanted City, but he did send me some detailed notes. Ultimately, the individual scores mattered little, because this was the rare case in which the winning wings were a unanimous favorite.
It was very useful to have two teams visiting the same five businesses over the course of an afternoon. That means we had two samples of the same thing made at different times. Many top wing places have a very hard time creating a consistently excellent plate of wings. And we experienced that on Saturday.
For the most part, the places that were consistent came out on top. Unfortunately, we found one of the stops to be consistently underwhelming.
Albany Pump Station was the clear underperformer across both teams. Which doesn’t mean the wings were without any merit. They are baked first before being fried, and that rendered the fat well and produced very tender meat. But the skin was just barely crispy, and at the end of the plate, the skin had transformed into something decidedly soggy. The solution for the future would be to insist upon the wings “extra crispy”.
But wings aren’t just about wings. They are about ritual. And that ritual includes vegetables and blue cheese. The vegetables are celery and carrot sticks. But not here. Here it was baby carrots from a bag, and some wilting lettuce. This, along with the thinner buttermilk blue, felt like an afterthought on an $11 order of ten wings.
The Excelsior Pub can do better. The place proved it on Saturday, because my group which went there early in the day got a batch of undercooked wings. Yep. Undercooked chicken. It’s not good, but as a judge you can only evaluate the food that you’ve been served. Team Enchanted City has a much better experience. In fact, for them it was the second best place on the tour.
That said, even though we all enjoyed the flavor and quantity of the sauce, it’s hard to come back from a batch of undercooked chicken. Still, I’ll be coming back here to give this excellent place a second chance, because those classic buffalo wings are full of potential. Plus you have to love a bar that’s a celebration of all the things that are great in New York.
McGeary’s Pub was also a mixed bag. Team Enchanted City went earlier in the afternoon and got a batch of wings that were neither crispy nor tender. Dry wings are no fun, but categorically they are better than undercooked wings. And as it turned out, Team Yelp had a much better experience at the end of the afternoon as the shifts were changing.
Our wings offered deliciously crisp skin. The tradeoff here was that the interior meat was a bit drier. But the medium sauce had good flavor, and a nice bite. We were told the hot wings included chipotle and crushed pepper flakes, taking them too far from the buffalo flavor profile to sample on this tour. However I hear they are excellent.
These wings could use more sauce, and next time I would make a point to order them extra wet. The kitchen might also want to reconsider putting the fresh cut veggies under the dome with the wings, because it results in slightly steamed veg and a puddle of condensation on the plate. It’s not a deal killer, but it does take this beloved downtown establishment out of contention as the top wing place in the neighborhood.
Enter Hill Street Cafe. Man, can this place make a mean wing. Our batch came with crisp skin and tender meat. But even though the sauce was delicious on its own, there just wasn’t enough to create an assertive buffalo presence on the wing as a whole. The heat level was fine, but I would recommend ordering these extra wet in the future.
Both teams were served impressive batches of wings at this downtown watering hole. The blue cheese wasn’t anything special. But they did have Hill Farmstead Harlan on tap which was a beautiful IPA to pair with these crisp and juicy flappers.
So what came out on top? Would you believe Graney’s Stout? I wouldn’t either. But it’s true. In fact, Zena, Goddess of Fire writes that despite Graney’s clear superiority in this contest, “I’m not sure I would go back – the venue is nasty.”
And she wasn’t kidding. When we went later in the afternoon, the place smelled strongly of industrial cleaners. Team Enchanted City arrived just after opening and they were treated to the stale musty smells of the morning after a raging party. So be forewarned.
I’m thinking that the best way to enjoy these wings is by waiting until spring or summer and taking advantage of the outside patio.
Because, seriously, you should try these wings. They have it all going on. The medium sauce is delicious, if not entirely traditional. We spied a little bit of parmesan in the mix, which made the whole thing that much creamier. And that skin. So crisp. Most found the meat to be perfectly moist. Personally, I thought it was a little tougher than perfect, but still a delicious specimen. The lighting in this bar was also terrible, so the picture of the wings doesn’t do them justice. But of the seven tasters on the tour, four of them gave these a perfect score, and everyone agreed these were the very best of the day.
How do you know Graney’s takes its wings seriously? The veg are brought out in a separate bowl to make sure they stay chilled and crisp. Yes. Chilled. Graney’s takes the crown on the strength of its wings along, but is further bolstered by the remarkable attention to detail in the veggies and the thick house made blue cheese dip.
So, what did we learn by visiting five different downtown bars in one day? Well, for starters Albany is no slouch when it comes to the Capital Region wing game. Graney’s wings are dynamite. Hill Street’s are solid, but just need a bit more sauce, which is an easily solvable problem. Excelsior’s can be delicious, if they aren’t underdone. McGeary’s should be ordered extra wet, or if you aren’t a stickler for buffalo sauce, I’m told the hot wings are delicious. Even the Pump Station isn’t irredeemable. Those wings just need to be ordered extra crispy.
On a broader level, it became clear just how challenging the high wire act of wing making can be.
Wings need to cook for a while to render the fat under the skin. This fat needs to be absorbed into the meat so that it stays tender. And of course, the wings need to be cooked for long enough to be done all the way through. The crispier a wing’s skin gets, the dryer its interior becomes. It’s a delicate balance.
Graney’s Stout pulled off the task brilliantly, and was able to do so across multiple batches. Congratulations to them for taking these bar bites seriously and giving them the love they deserve. These wings were so good, they were worth putting up with any and all indignities we might have suffered in terms of ambiance and service. That said, I’m totally looking forward to spring so I can return and enjoy a basket of wings outside.