Fellowship of the wing
An epic quest to find the best chicken wings in town
In a Jan. 23 letter to the editor, Tom Verzola of Reno wrote:
“I’m a little disappointed after watching an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives filmed in Reno. The restaurant chosen to represent the best of Reno was Noble Pie Pizza Co. The pizza is sub-standard—at its best, mediocre. “The award-winning wings” Anyone can deep fry a wing and add Frank’s Red Hot Sauce to it and call it award-winning? If research was done properly, it would be known that Boulevard Pizza best represents Reno. … I want it to be known that Boulevard Pizza is the standard when it comes to wings in Reno. Can there be a wing article to set it straight?”
So, being from an upstate New York town with more pizza and wing joints per capita than the relative all-you-can-eat sushi ratio here, I offered to take on the task of writing this Reno wing article. However, I'm not a regular food critic. So to do my research properly, as suggested, I rounded up a team of experts. Cue slow-mo montage introducing the crew walking in formation.
I called up Paul Archie, who's actually from Buffalo, New York. For years, he and his wife owned Paulie's Pizza located on Kietzke Lane. I never made it there before it closed a few years ago, but it sounds exactly like the pizza places in my hometown. But what makes Paulie super qualified to participate in this wing tour are his 14 trophies from the annual Biggest Little City Wing Fest hosted by the Eldorado. Paulie has won people's choice six years straight with zany recipes like strawberry cheesecake hot wings, salted caramel, bacon-wrapped, and chicken and waffles in wing-form. He's a fierce competitor—feared and respected by other wing cookers. He's eccentric and funny as shit, and he knows wings.
I also brought Michael Tragash, Reno's community manager for the user review app Yelp. Tragash is a well-connected foodie. He's been a celebrity judge for the Wing Fest, and he's well aware of the wide breadth of places to get wings in this town. (Editor's note: Yelp did not pay for any of the wings consumed for this article. Neither did the Reno News & Review. I'm getting paid for writing the story but bought the food out of pocket.)
Last I invited along my buddy Nick Rogers who is a local music promoter and DJ. He's more of a wing enthusiast than an expert. I've just seen him eat a lot of wings. He was dubbed our “clean up hitter” helping us through the 15 orders of wings we ate.
Let me describe the perfect wings. I like a Buffalo wing that is fried, not breaded. They're freshly tossed in a medium sauce that will draw a bead of sweat to the brow, but isn't “hot.” And I want enough sauce in the container to be able to dip pizza crust or fries or whatever's left over. I do bleu cheese because I'm East Coast. This is essentially the classic Buffalo wing.
“Rubbery wings are nasty—Buffalo wings are supposed to be crispy,” Paulie said.
“That's why I always request the wings be ‘extra crispy,'” said Tragash. “The places that are known for having good wings, you don't have to say that.”
Each place we stopped, we ordered one classic medium, and then whatever other wing styles people like there.
I printed a scorecard I compiled with nine categories from appearance and aroma to sauce consistency and heat with 10-point scale for each. In the end, we resorted to just giving one overall score for each place and talking at length. The whole ordeal took us over five hours—that's a lot of deliberation.
As a crew, we narrowed a long list of wing places down to five, of course including Mr. Verzola's preferred Boulevard Pizza.
Shenanigan’s Olde English Pub
77 Plumb Lane, 324-1177
The first place we stopped was Shenanigan's Olde English Pub. Apparently this is a sneaky spot for good whiskey, but that's not why we were there. Paulie got there before anyone. He said he was spooked that maybe he was about to be whacked by some chicken wing mafia conspiring to end his wing fest win streak. He took the cake for most requests to keep his colorful tid bits off the record.
We ordered the medium wings, the sweet hot, and the dry Cajun rub.
“My M.O. lately is dry rubbed wings with a side of sauce,” Tragash said. He said that ensures the wing is crispy enough, while still giving the option to dip in as deeply into the sauce as necessary. I have to admit, I've adopted this technique too since living in Reno. Places like Brasserie Saint James only serve their wings that way, and they're great. But Paulie says it's blasphemous. It's more like fried chicken.
At Shenanigan's, the sweet hot wings won. They were the best consistency on the outside. The sauce was a sticky sweet chili that I thought could have had a little more spicy heat, but was delicious.
The medium wings were soggier than they should be—granted we spent a lot of time raving about the sweet hot.
Jox Sports Bar & Grill
3652 S. Virginia St., 827-6688
Jox Sports Bar & Grill is a place that still allows smoking inside. We got the New Orleans, which are like a barbecue style wing, and we got the medium wings.
Jox grills the wings after they're sauced. It adds these nice-looking char lines.
Overall we rated the wings four out of 10. They're nothing special, but they get the job done without being offensive. There was a tang we all noticed in the medium sauce that we couldn't quite figure out. It's a place you might want to ask to make them extra crispy and a side of more sauce.
Legends Grill Sports & Spirits
6015 S. Virginia St., 853-5550
Legends Grill Sports & Spirits is a classic sports bar. They have a pretty wide selection of styles, and they specifically note to give them at least 15 minutes to prepare them. We got our usual medium, a Cajun dry rub and their “nutty” sauce which is barbecue and Buffalo combined. Nick insisted we get the Nuclear sauce on the side. “I just want to try them,” he said, having not yet tested his heat tolerance.
There's also a secret sauce called the Ramon that isn't on the menu. It's so secret our waitress didn't know about it either. So there you have it, the legend of Legends.
I like a medium to carry a little heat, but the medium wings here were intense. Paulie isn't a hot wings guy either, so we were both nearly tapped out right away. I thought the Nutty was exceptionally hot, too. Nick happily ate like twelve more wings, and Michael was dipping the Cajuns in everything. He said this dry rub won out over Shenanigan's.
1076 Rock Blvd, Sparks, 359-2124
Boulevard Pizza is a big restaurant with one of the last vestiges of a salad bar. They proudly display their wing fest trophies. Paulie asked to say hi to the owner, Tony, a staunch rival and competitor, but he had stepped out for the night.
While we were waiting, we taught Paulie how to use Instagram. Everything was jovial until our wings showed up. They were tiny raisins of meat wrapped around toothpicks for bones. Paulie took a photo of them next to a quarter for scale.
They were lightly sauced—vinegary and peppery, enough to make you sneeze.
“Welp, that was easy,” said Nick. We threw them down and left them behind.
8798 N. Red Rock Road, 622-8825
Aloha Shack is a Hawaiian restaurant that used to be a food truck, so it's definitely an outlier for typical Buffalo wings. Owners Chris and Theresa Luke are also competitors at Wing Fest.
“You brought this dude?” said Chris when we saw Paulie come through the door, ribbing him the whole time about whose wings were better.
We tried one of each of their styles—island barbecue, garlic mango Buffalo, peach habañero barbecue, the dry rub, their ono Sirarcha honey and their pineapple upside down.
The wings are suspiciously massive, like the chickens used to train at some Crossfit body builder farm.
“One of these wings is like all six of fuckin' Boulevard's,” said Paulie.
I was amenable to the garlic mango Buffalo, despite being a twist on the classic. They weren't Nick's favorite. They were crispy enough but could have crisped a little longer. The ono style was really nicely dressed with green onions and sesame seeds, maybe the best presentation of the day.
We only had time for five spots, but we spent the whole time talking about everywhere else that does great wings in Reno. Paulie is a huge fan of Red Necks, a food truck that does grilled barbecue wings. Noble Pie got that glowing review from Guy Fieri on the Food Network, so good for them. I eat those wings a lot myself, especially late night.
Also worth noting is Archie's and The Depot for happy hour. Tragash mentioned Louis' Basque Corner, Arario and Carolina BBQ for unusually delightful wing styles.
But to Tom Verzola and everyone out there, when it comes to wings, go with whatever makes your mouth water.