Chicken wings are simple, really, and yet so complex. A finger-sized palette for sauce-making sorcerers and dry-rub wizards to bring to spice-fueled life. The centerpiece of any football party or night out with friends. One of the most wonderfully messy appetizers (or, if you prefer, entrees) you’ll ever have the pleasure to gnaw.
In recent years, the chicken wing has become like precious gold, its availability crimped by supply chains and inflationary pricing that’s made more than a few restaurants flip to the chicken thigh as a more affordable alternative. The good news? Wings are back in a big way, and you don’t have to look hard to find Madison restaurants that really know how to make them shine.
Some places bake their chicken wings. Some places fry ’em, and some grill ’em. The secret to the amazing dry-rubbed wings at Madison’s — you know, the ones usually winning top mention in the annual Best of Madison competition — is that they go through all three steps. They’re marinated in oil and a spicy-sweet dry rub (think brown sugar, onion and garlic) overnight before the bake/fry/grill treatment, resulting in tender, perfectly spiced wings that scarcely need a dipping sauce. Still, there are plenty of tempting options, everything from a traditional Buffalo sauce or a thick garlic Parmesan sauce to a scorching-sweet maple Sriracha sauce. General Manager Christina Pardo also makes a point to evolve her sauces to match her customers’ tastes. A new, brightly colored spicy arbol chile sauce was originally designed to adorn Madison’s tacos, but customers kept dipping the wings in it instead — now it’s a full-fledged menu option alongside the wings. Gluten-free diners can also ask to have their order of wings skip the fryer step. That’s what we call solid customer service. 119 King St., 608-229-0900, madisonsdowntown.com
Marie’s Soul Food
Owner Marissa Holmes didn’t expect her chicken wings to become one of her menu’s top sellers — her money was on the ribs. But one bite of these breaded and deep-fried wings is enough to understand exactly why it’s worked out that way. The wings at Marie’s are always made to order — Holmes swore from the get-go that she would never put a single food item under a heat lamp, and she continues to live up to that vow. Each batch of wings — Holmes goes through 40 to 50 pounds of them on the days she’s open for business — is battered in a mix that includes flour, garlic powder, onion powder and some Slap Ya Mama Cajun seasoning (among others), resulting in a first bite that’s crispy and sharply flavorful. Holmes also offers a punched-up barbecue sauce for those who can’t resist slathering something on their wings, but why would you bother? These wings are crispy, juicy and gotta-have-’em just the way they are. 1637 Monroe St., 608-405-5729, mariessf.com
Full Mile Beer Co. & Kitchen
Nathan Kinderman and Zac Vieth wanted to incorporate a worldly, East Asian angle into the menu at their Sun Prairie neighborhood brewpub, a strategy that extends beyond the entrees to, in an unexpected way, the chicken wings. Vieth, Full Mile’s former chef (Chuck Wentworth is Full Mile’s chef at time of print), was inspired by fried chicken recipes from Japan that use potato starch to achieve a legendary level of crispiness. When potato starch proved too pricey, he began experimenting with cornstarch instead. His eureka moment is our appetizer heaven: These wings are oversized beasts, ridiculously crispy and meaty, dusted with an employee-formulated red-chili rub inspired by Nashville hot chicken. Kinderman claims the wings hold their crispiness even when they’re coming out of your fridge the following day, and shockingly, he’s not wrong, but you’re going to want to eat as many of these thoroughly spiced wings as you can while they’re still fresh. If you’re still intrigued by that East Asian angle, you can order the fresh-cooked wings tossed in Full Mile’s savory Asian barbecue sauce, accompanied by house-made pickles. But for our money, dry rub is the best bet (by a full mile at least). 132 Market St., Sun Prairie, 608-318-2074, fullmilebeercompany.com
Drive with us, if you will, to the countryside — more specifically, the rural roads outside Sun Prairie — to visit the rough-edged chicken-wing empire of the legendary Steve Ginter, a garrulous German whose international travels have resulted in one of the most mouthwatering, Nashville-style dry rubs you’ll ever put to your lips. It’s made from scratch with a mix of spices that elevates almost everything on Chicken Licks’ modest fried-food menu, from cheese curds to burgers. But that’s not why you came, obviously: You’re here for the dry-rubbed wings basket. According to affable kitchen manager Devin Carroll, Chicken Licks sends 15,000 pounds of fresh, never-frozen wings a week through the restaurant’s four fryer baskets — and given that this salt-of-the-earth joint is basically always packed, you’d better be prepared to pull up a stool at the bar and nurse a beer or two while you wait patiently for your ticket to wing nirvana. Believe us, it’s very much worth it. “Almost everyone here is a regular,” quips Carroll. “They’re not coming here for me — I’m not that good-looking.” 5508 County Highway N, Sun Prairie, 608-837-6721, bit.ly/3LMrXb3
Tipsy Cow built its sizable wing nation with half-price specials and trivia nights that have since been sidelined by the pandemic — but to be honest, those gimmicks were never really needed in the first place. Tipsy’s wings are what you’d call straightforward — not breaded, just deep-fried. It’s the sauces and rubs that put this joint in the upper echelon. There are eight options to tempt you, and while the just-right Buffalo sauce is one of the better treatments in town, you’re even better served by seeking your spice elsewhere, too. The soy-based spicy Asian sauce, a crowd favorite, will send you stage-diving for a glass of water, as will the maple chipotle. Those who lean toward dry rubs will not be disappointed: The Memphis-style rub elevates an otherwise basic wing to elite status. Want to go completely wild? Pair a six-pack of wings with an order of Cajun-spiced alligator bites, made with, yes, real alligator. 102 King St., 608-287-1455; 2816 Prairie Lakes Drive, Sun Prairie, 608-318-0232; tipsycowmadison.com
Vintage Brewing Co.
OK, we’re cheating a little here. Vintage’s Rip Rip Chicken — so named for the rip-roaring time you’ll have when you order the dish — doesn’t actually include chicken wings. They’re chopped up pieces of lightly breaded fried chicken thighs, rife with tender dark meat that packs a ton of flavor and is served on a bed of creamy coleslaw. But they’re also deeply delicious, a product of the nontraditional, buttery Buffalo sauce that owner and kitchen manager Trent Kraemer slathers them in. They’re bite-sized, robbing you of the carnal joy of smearing sauce all over your cheeks as you bite into a bone-in wing, but the trade-off is well worth it. Whether you’re using a fork or your fingers, the heat on these bites always hits the sweet spot, and as with cheese curds and potato chips, there’s absolutely no way you’re stopping with just one. Buffalo sauce not your thing? You can also get them tossed in sweet chili sauce, chipotle peach barbecue, garlic Parmesan or spicy garlic sauce. Say it with us: Rip, Rip. 674 S. Whitney Way, 608-207-2739; 803 E. Washington Ave., 608-819-6241; 600 Water St., Sauk City, 608-370-8200; vintagebrewingcompany.com
Let’s Get Sauced
For some of us, what goes on the chicken wing is way more important than the wing itself. Most places can come up with a passable Buffalo or barbecue sauce, but there are also those that refuse to be constrained by the conventional. To them, we raise our napkins — the entire stack.
Alchemy Cafe fronts one of the most Instagram-ready plates of chicken wings in the city, a set of 12 doused in an eye-popping bourbon-cocoa Buffalo sauce — it’s plenty spicy, with just hints of a mild chocolate flavor hovering in the background — and sprinkled generously with chunks of Gorgonzola cheese. The menu classifies this masterpiece as a “small plate,” but you can easily make it your evening’s entree. Just make sure you don’t touch your phone right after diving into this saucy stack. 1980 Atwood Ave., 608-204-7644, alchemymadison.com
The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. took advantage of the pandemic to create a ghost kitchen at the Fitchburg location focused completely on chicken wings for takeout and delivery. The concept didn’t survive, but the wings sure did: You can douse these crispy bites in nine different sauces and dry rubs, many of which lean toward the blistering (a three-alarm, a Nashville hot and a Habanero Hellfire may elicit tears as you lick your chops). The spice-fueled options (think a Cajun dry rub and a Jamaican jerk) are unexpectedly complex, but no matter which one you choose, the Dane’s Gorgonzola dressing tops any blue cheese sauce you may have been considering as a cooler/accompaniment. 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg, 608-442-9000, greatdanepub.com
Prepare for analysis overload when you enter Wings Over Madison — there are 22 (yes, 22) sauce and dry-rub options here. “People at the cash register always tell me, ‘I thought I was ready, but I’m not ready,’ ” laughs General Manager Jeremy Schmid. Many of the sauces share a spice base before diverging into individual flavor neighborhoods. To help you move forward, we’ll note that can’t-miss options include these three: a lemon pepper dry rub, a Cajun barbecue with an unexpected spice kick and a sweet honey mustard for those who like things smooth. 2739 University Ave., 608-467-3300, wingsover.com
Aaron R. Conklin is a contributing writer at Madison Magazine.
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