We’ve long maintained that the word “best” is purely subjective and that ranking and rating chicken wings and wing restaurants is futile (and arrogant) because everybody has a valid opinion. However, reporting on what is “most popular” is fact based; like science. And today, I fancy myself a scientist.
As my Wingaddicts partners Doni and Wingchef Ryan and I continue on our quest to eat 1,000 different wing flavors, in addition to being asked “who makes the best wings,” we’re also asked all the time . . . “what’s your favorite wing flavor?” Both are impossible questions to answer. The most honest and accurate reply to both might be, “the next one.”
When we look at a wing menu, our eyes immediately task to finding flavors we’ve never tried before. We then default back to the flavors that the rest of America does.
I bring to you, “the list.”
Actually, this may sound flaky, but there really isn’t a clear-cut number ten for this list. I liked the sound of America’s Top Ten more than America’s Top Nine (which the list actually should be). But at number ten, we do have a log jam. Here we have the “Southern Fried Chicken” style wings, breaded (think KFC), which are far more popular down south and a variation is served across the country in Chinese restaurants. Add to this spot wings featuring Hot Honey, Sriracha, or Chipotle spices. As I said, log jam.
The ninth most-popular wing in the US is the Lemon Pepper wing. It’s one of the top sellers at Wingstop which, incidentally, is the top-selling wing joint in the country so it should come as no surprise. While vastly more popular in the southern states, it has its place in all 50. You normally see it as a dry rub, but we’ve encountered amazing wet lemon pepper wings and we love it with a lemon wedge garnish to squeeze on!
Mango Habanero hits the scale at number eight. Probably made popular by Buffalo Wild Wings (it’s also on the Wingstop menu) you can find a gajillion recipes for mango habanero sauce on the internet. It’s popular for that sweet/hot fruity tang and the level of heat always varies based on the restaurant. I love it when it’s surprisingly tingly on my lips. Eventually, I’d love to see a (medium, hot, extra hot) option like we see with Buffalo style wings. My favorite in a bottle are Sweet Baby Ray’s and the G.Hughes sugar free option. And the Cholula “Sweet Habanero” Hot Sauce is amazing on everything!
Checking in at number seven are Jerk wings. The unmistakable jerk flavor of the islands can be sweet, spicy, or a delightful combination of both. Originating in Jamaica and the surrounding Caribbean islands, jerk is used there mostly as a “cooking style” (a verb) for chicken, pork, beef, fish, goat and even fruits and veggies. (They don’t really do wings there). Wing joints in the US might make their own jerk sauces in house, but most use an existing jerk dry rub or bottled sauce. Made with scotch bonnet peppers, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, thyme, onions, garlic and all-spice, my personal favorite bottled jerk is Walkerswood which is a wet paste in different heat levels. Nonetheless, I’ll take some jerk wings (preferably grilled or smoked) every single time!
When the French Catholics migrated south to Louisiana after the American Revolution, they brought with them Cajun-style cooking and Cajun wings come in at number six on the list. You’ll primarily see Cajun wings prepared with a dry rub of paprika, cayenne pepper, oregano, garlic powder and black pepper. Often mistaken for Old Bay (which did not make the list) Cajun spice began its relationship with chicken wings in the 1970’s when different Buffalo restaurants started using it to deviate from the “traditional” hot sauce and butter buffalo wing recipe. Today you see flavor combinations like Cajun Butter, Cajun Ranch, Cajun Mustard, Cajun Chipotle as the canvas widens.
While Wing Flavors six-through-ten continue to grow in popularity, chances are even the super casual wing eater has probably eaten numbers one-through-five at some point already. These are the five you’ll see on almost every wing menu on the planet.
Sweet Chili wings come in at number five and are really an anomaly. I say that because very very very few restaurants make their own in-house sweet chili sauce. It’s like ketchup. Why make it yourself? To be clear, we occasionally DO find a serious chef who makes it from scratch but 99% of the time it’s coming out of a bottle. The fruity sweet-and-hot profile is sometimes sweeter and sometimes hotter. We’re also seeing it used creatively for combos like Sweet Chili Gorgonzola, Sweet Chili Parmesan and others.
The fourth most-popular wing flavor in America is good old Teriyaki. You mostly see it served in its traditional form, thickened for wings. This salty and sweet Japanese flavor is a combination of soy sauce, mirin and sugar (sometimes honey). Some wing menus have hotter versions and many use it in super-creative flavor combinations yielding names like Buffiyaki, Jerkiyaki, Wasabiyaki, Habanyaki and Honeyaki. You also see combos like Garlic Teriyaki, Hawaiian Teriyaki, Teriyaki Citrus, Teriyaki Ranch and the list goes on.
This one still boggles my mind because it’s just not a personal favorite of mine. But Garlic Parmesan wings are the third-most enjoyed wings in the country. The simple combination of garlic, butter and parmesan cheese is the nation’s strong number three wing choice. Sometimes you see grated parmesan, sometimes shaved parmesan or truffle. Some creative chefs add black pepper or hot sauce and some use breading, some not. We’ve even seen the creative spin of “chicken parm” which is a garlic parm wing with marinara. Oh, and you haven't lived until you've tried "Creamy Garlic Parm" wings!
If you’re a true Wingaddict, there can’t be much suspense building up for the top two wing flavors in - not only America - but the whole world. Number two is, of course, the BBQ Wing. It’s simply wings covered in barbecue sauce. But here’s the rub (pun intended); there are hundreds of different BBQ styles and combinations. We’ve personally 75 different flavors of BBQ wings from the regional Alabama Style (white), Korean, Asian, Carolina, Cincinnati, Jamaican, Kansas City, Memphis, Oklahoma and Texas-style all the way to whiskey and cognac combination sauces and even hundreds of different bottled BBQ sauces (most notably Sweet Baby Rays). You could literally eat a different style of BBQ wing every day for a year.
DRUM ROLL PLEASE! (Seriously?)
The one you’ve been waiting for? The top wing flavor of all time and the overwhelming winner year after year is of course the flavor that started the entire phenomenon; the Buffalo Wing. That nearly 60-year-old combination of hot sauce and butter that was born at Anchor Bar, has stood the test of time. It’s probably safe to say that every restaurant that serves wings has this flavor on the menu. In many, it’s the only flavor on the menu. Ironically, in Buffalo they don’t even call them Buffalo wings (they’re hot wings). And if you went into a restaurant and just said, “I’ll have an order of wings, please” you’d probably get this traditional flavor by default.
* Incidentally, it was BBQ wings that actually came onto the scene a few years BEFORE Buffalo wings were created. That’s right. John Young, a Buffalo transplant from the south, served wings with a ketchup and vinegar based sweet BBQ sauce called “Mamba” or “Mumbo” sauce from his chicken restaurant and deli called John Young’s Wings and Things. He served them breaded in full wing segments.
No matter which wing flavor is your personal favorite (and especially if all you ever do is order Buffalo-style) we’d love to challenge you to spread your wings a little bit and enter into the world of the ever-expanding wing flavor kaleidoscope!
For the record (stop me if you’ve heard this before), we have eaten 616 different flavors to date on our “Wing Quest” for 1,000. We’ll keep you posted! We don’t rate em. We just appreciate em. I’m Tommy Wyatt and I score this blog post a 9.3 <wink>
Interested in seeing what 617 flavors looks like? Visit wingaddicts.com and don't forget to download the Wingaddicts App to share YOUR favorite wings and wing joints!
Tommy Wyatt is co-founder of Wingaddicts and author of “Under the Wingfluence” for Wingaddicts.com.
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