The happy truth about Buffalo (and other style) chicken wings: Respectable to very good wings aren't hard to make. Fry 'em right (that is, until the skin is good and crispy), douse them in sauce (hot sauce, butter and vinegar are the base components of your average Buffalo sauce) and you're all set. This is why virtually every sports bar in the country serves chicken wings; they're easy.
The unhappy truth about wings is that you're only as good as your last batch; munching undercrisped wings is like eating precooked chicken through its plastic wrapper. This is why chicken-wing specialists, who have their preparation down to a science, do a very good job.
I don't indulge in chicken wings often, so I wouldn't go so far as to say that the following restaurants are the best wing-flingers in town. But they are places that I've found to be reliably consistent over the years.
Bird's Nest. The last time the Tribune did a "best wings" roundup (in July 2004), these meaty and moist wings were the winners. I met my son there a couple of weeks ago, and the wings (10 for $8, 20 for $15 and 30 for $21) were just as good as I'd remembered them. The regular hot-sauce wings were just spicy enough, and the honey-barbecue wings were addictively sweet and sticky. My son tells me the hot barbecue wings are good, too, but I'll take his word for it. Stop in on Thursdays and Sundays, when wings are a ridiculous 45 cents. 2500 N. Southport Ave., 773-472-1502.
Cactus. If you like 'em hot, the Death Valley wings (7 for $8) are to die for. Seriously, you'll feel closer to death after trying Cactus' Insane wings, so hot that you have to sign a waiver to order them. Mild or hot wings are the safer options, or try the garlic honey mustard wings instead. 404 S. Wells St., 312-922-3830.
Emerald Isle. This is your basic Far North Side Irish pub, decorated with pictures of Ireland and some framed Guinness ads, and there are enough TVs to make catching a game an appealing prospect. The Buffalo-style wings (six for $4.50, 12 for $9, 18 for $13) are good, and even the mild version has an appreciable kick. But what knocks me out are the garlic Romano wings — extra crispy and very garlicky, with a dusted-Romano finish that puts the wings over the top. There are barbecue wings and grilled teriyaki-citrus wings as well. (There's an Emerald Isle restaurant, also a pretty good wings destination, in Edison Park, but the two are unrelated.) 2535 W. Peterson Ave, 773-561-6674.
Gators Wing Shack Grill and Pizzeria. The pizza might be good here. The half-pound Angus burgers might be worth a try. But I come to this northwest suburban spot for the wings, which have won a fistful of trophies at Chicago's Best WingFest (including first place in the mild and second place in the exotic categories at February's competition). Prices range from $9.49-$10.49 for 10 and $18.98 to $20.98 for 20. Mondays through Fridays at lunch, you can get 10 wings for $7.49. Original Buffalo and garlic Buffalo are the big sellers, there are barbecue versions available and you can even order them plain. 1719 Rand Road, Palatine, 847-705-0555.
Palmer Place. This west suburban restaurant is mostly known for its burgers (Palmer Place has done very well over the years at Chicago's annual Hamburger Hop), of which there are more than 30 varieties on the menu, but the restaurant offers very good wings as well. Among the options (six for $7.75, 12 for $12.75) are good and vinegary Buffalo style (made with blue-cheese dip in mind) and sweet, almost maple-y barbecue wings. There's also honey mustard and, for the spice lovers, a General Tso version. 56 S. La Grange Road, La Grange, 708-482-7127.
Timothy O'Toole's. Bears fans pack this place on Sunday, but you needn't wait until game time to dig into the wings (10 for $10, 20 for $19, 30 for $28, 50 for $45), which over the years have done very well at Chicago's Best WingFest (third in the barbecue category in February). There are more than a half-dozen styles available, and keep an eye out for the maple-bourbon barbecue wings, which are as delicious as they are sticky — and for some reason priced at $8.99 for 10 wings, so they're a smidge cheaper. If you're going to the game, there's a $10 round-trip shuttle to Soldier Field; if not, there are 60 flat-screens in the pub. 622 N. Fairbanks Court, 312-642-0700).
Yak-Zies. The wings here are pure Buffalo-style (mild, medium, hot and Oh My Gosh), apart from one barbecue offering, and priced with dedicated eaters (or large parties) in mind. The wings go 10 for $9, 20 for $16, 50 for $38 and 100 for $68. Bring friends. With the Cubs' season mercifully winding down, the chances of finding a table at the Wrigleyville location should improve a bit. 3710 N. Clark St., 773-525-9200; 506 W. Diversey Parkway, 773-327-1717.
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