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A Pile Up of Pine Hills Wings

June 11, 2018

Buffalo wings. They are everywhere up in these parts. So how do you even begin to tackle the task of tasting all of them to find the very best?

You break the task down into micro regions. And that’s what we’ve been doing on the FLB for the past few years. We went to the downtowns of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy. But those were just for starters.

On June 2, nine rugged individuals signed up to dedicate their bodies to this ongoing project. Divided into two teams, we went to five different places that made it through the nomination process. And on a beautiful spring day, we ate wings and strolled around the student-heavy corridor of Albany’s Pine Hills neighborhood.

Who came out on top?

Well, I’ve finally tabulated the answer, but this tour wasn’t quite as clear cut as other outings have been in the past. Typically, there is one obvious front runner. And while there was indeed we have an ultimate winner of the Tour de Wing: Pine Hills-ish edition, it wasn’t immediately apparent.

The reason is that literally every place we visited was the top choice of at least one evaluator, and no single stop got more than two people’s votes as the best stop on the tour. So that meant a deep dive into the scoresheets was required to look at the scores, and calculate which wings came out on top.

What is important to remember is that the ultimate results are not just one person’s opinion, but rather the collected input of nine passionate and dedicated individuals—each with their own prejudices—which led to a personal preference diverging from the collective findings.

So while the top wing was not my personal number one pick, I can absolutely live with the results, because it too was absolutely delicious.

As a reminder, at each stop we were evaluating a fixed set of criteria. Four are about the wing itself as we looked at skin, meat, sauce, and our overall impression for how all those elements come together. Two are for the sides, separating vegetables and blue cheese into two distinct scores. And finally, there is one overall score that encompasses the entire experience of the wings at the restaurant, including food, service, and atmosphere. All of these are scored on a five-point scale.

In the end, this was very very close. And every place had something to love.

Josh K. loved Junior’s but he was the only one. He was also the only one of us who has lived in Buffalo, but that was many years ago.

Still, to him, these tasted like the closest thing to classic buffalo wings “albeit a little industrial tasting”. Team One’s wings came with plenty of sauce. Team Two felt the wings were hurt by a lack of sauce. But with so many people either unhappy with the sparsity of sauce or its “processed” taste, the low sauce score hobbled the place that Zena Goddess of Fire said had the “nicest general environment”.

My hunch is that one would be best served at Junior’s by ordering the wings with medium sauce, extra crispy, and extra wet. Although maybe there is a reason why the moonshine sauce rules the roost. Perhaps it’s best to avoid the buffalo sauce entirely and go in another direction. Just stay away from the gummy and pasty “The King Wing” made with peanut butter, banana, and bacon. Creative, yes. Delicious, no.

There was an effective three way tie for second place. But one of those three was clearly the underperformer. But the news was better for Crave than the overall scores might have you believe.

Crave officially comes in at number four, but it was the number two pick of Team One, and my favorite stop of the day. Unfortunately, Team Two had a tragic experience with their batch of wings in that they weren’t crispy. Plus, these were the only wings to be served without carrots and celery, which resulted in an entry that felt incomplete.

Of course, this is neither a wing place nor a bar, but since the restaurant now serves beer it qualified for a spot on this tour. And I really wanted to try how a casual chef-centric restaurant made chicken wings.

The buffalo sauce is housemade, and is delicious. Most tasters agreed on that, with this non-traditional sauce getting the second highest score of the day. These wings also captured the highest combined score for their meat. Several eaters found them to be the tastiest on the tour, because these were the only wings that actually tasted like chicken. As a reminder, most chicken tastes like nothing. A minority of evaluators were put off by the assertive flavor. There was also a lot to love about the house made blue cheese dressing, in that it wasn’t an industrial mayonnaise-centric goo. Although it definitely would have ranked higher if it had a more assertive blue cheese presence.

Flaws aside, Steve N. agreed with me in calling this the best of the bunch. He “liked its well balanced, spicy sauce with tender, flavorful meat that tasted like roasted chicken.” Not everyone needs veggies on the plate to enjoy great wings.

Veggie lovers can go to Washington Tavern, which tied for second overall, but just a hair behind in the all important wing category. Still, with new ownership this classic spot almost did not make the tour, so it’s good to see it remain competitive in a strong field.

This was the favorite stop for both Burnt My Fingers and Benjamin M. who were on separate teams. Team One was ordering wings hot. Team Two was ordering wings medium. But at WT both sauces were a little sweet. The hot sauce was actually more than a little sweet, and went over the line to being sticky. Still, Benjamin M. found it to be “fantastic and nuanced”.

What everyone could agree upon, however, were the crispness and presentation of the vegetables. This was also one of the top two blue cheeses of the day.

The Fountain squeaks its way into the number two spot on the strength of its tender meat.

Interestingly, both Zena Goddess of Fire and Ramen Emperor (not their real names), who picked this as their top wing of the day, were both on Team Two. Perhaps they were served a slightly better wing than the folks who arrived earlier in the day. Our batch was unevenly cooked, with some pieces being crispy, and others not quite. Plus the sauce didn’t cling well to the wing segments.

While the blue cheese dip was more mayonnaise than sour cream, it was still voted as one of the two best of the day.

 

I wish I could have tried a wing from the batch Team Two was served, because the ones I tried were fine if unremarkable. But this is why we break up into teams, and try to visit places multiple times on the same day.

After diving into the numbers, no matter how I cut them, Graney’s came out on top.

Yes, this is related to Graney’s Stout that won the Tour de Wing: Downtown Albany edition. Although, we have it on good authority that the blue cheese is different in Pine Hills. For the record, it’s better at the Warehouse District location. That said, service and ambiance are better in Pine Hills.

Even though Graney’s was only the top pick of Sarah M. and Elijah, it took top scores in skin and sauce. Plus it was decisively in the top spot for wing and the overall experience. While Crave was my personal favorite, I’m very comfortable with this as the top choice of the tour.

Let me share a real quick side story to explain why that is.

While we were waiting for our wings, a nearby table received their order. The smell of classic buffalo sauce wafted through the air, and I was immediately brought back to the time I fell in love with wings in the first place. Taste memory is powerful stuff, and classics are classic for a reason. And that’s the Graney’s experience.

Our wings were super crispy, which helped push that skin score to the top of the pack. It did have a toughening effect on the meat, but as Steve N. said, the “great sauce elevated whe whole wing.”

Behold, the power of buffalo sauce. This is what it’s all about.

What a tour! We learned a lot. While as individuals we may all have our personal favorites, collectively we love the classics. Congratulations to everyone involved. It’s not often when each spot is able to claim a favorite, or to have a three-way dead heat for second place.

These outings are always a ton of fun. Thanks to everyone who came out. And if this sounds like your idea of a good time, keep your eyes on the FLB, because we try to organize tours like this four times a year. If all goes well we’ll have a summer outing coming up soon, and it may even be another soft serve tour. But no promises.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Randy K permalink
    June 11, 2018 10:14 am

    Sounds like a fun tour and interesting to hear Graney’s is consistently churning out the tastiest wings, at both locations!

    Have you been to their newest restaurant yet? Vintage – in the warehouse district. A little pricey but I love the ambiance and the food is really tasty, too.

  2. Benjamin M. permalink
    June 11, 2018 10:44 am

    Thanks for putting this together Dan. And, based on what looked to be amazing mozz. sticks at the next table over while we were at the Washington Tavern, could a “Tour de Bâton de Fromage Frit”?

  3. June 11, 2018 10:46 am

    I can live with Graney’s, but barely. One thing that was missing from the scoresheet was a “value” box. WT would have won that because they delivered 12 wings for the same price as every other place’s 10 wings. And Graney’s wings were undersized compared to the others, giving you less for your money.

    • -R. permalink
      June 11, 2018 11:51 am

      I prefer a smaller sized wing. I’ve actually reduced my wing orders as of late to a mere 5 wings because they’re generally getting too damn big. When I get a basket of wings and the drumlets appear to be the size of a broiler chicken leg, then something is horribly, hormonally amiss. And, since wings are sold by quantity, not weight, it would seem that the restaurant owner (who buys by the 40 pound box) is actually losing out on their profit margin by serving the larger wings.

  4. June 11, 2018 2:59 pm

    Bummer that you’re thinking of doing yet another soft serve tour, especially since you’ve declared you’re “no fan” of the stuff.

    Surely there must be something else worthy of a tour. Soft serve is boring.

    • June 11, 2018 3:10 pm

      It’s true. But it’s also true that of people are going to eat it, they should be eating the least bad version possible.

    • June 11, 2018 8:44 pm

      I’m in on a soft serve tour. Come on Steve, give it another shot.

  5. Josh K permalink
    June 11, 2018 8:21 pm

    Judging by pictures alone – Graney’s indeed looks the best. I am okay with them taking the win. I just wished the meat wasn’t so dried out (the category where Crave killed it) and the blue cheese was the same delicious kind served at Stout.

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