Start a discussion of the Top 10 anything in Chicago and you’re likely to hear repeats of the same places that the Trib, the Reader, or the big food blogs and writers always talk about. These places are almost uniformly great, and well deserving of their accolades. But what about the neighborhood place where you nurse a hangover with a plate of tacos? Or the dive bar with the unexpectedly great burger? Any jackass with a web site and some free time can pile on praise for the safe, already-acclaimed choices (see: Twitter on any given day). But to recognize our beloved under-the-radar neighborhood joints, ManBQue has pioneered the Not Top 10 – the best bars and restaurants that don’t show up on your typical lists. When we remove PR from the equation, we’re left with one question: Is it delicious?
Following the beef-powered success of our last Not Top 10, featuring the best and most underrated burgers in Chicago, we decided it was time to tackle that most beloved of March Madness binge-eating foods – the chicken wing. After whittling down a gigantic list of recommendations, we sampled wings from 15 different restaurants, compared the scores, and were left with a really great Top 10. In case you’re wondering, it takes about 12 hours to eat at 15 different restaurants. We started in Albany Park at noon and exited the South Loop in a chicken delirium around midnight. Totally worth it.
The rating system was worked like this:
Exterior (5 points): How crispy is the skin? Does it have a satisfying bite?
Interior (5 points): How juicy and moist is the chicken on the inside?
Rub/Sauce (5 points): How tasty is the rub or sauce? Does it complement the chicken or just overwhelm it? If there’s heat, is the level of heat pleasant?
Size/Meat (5 points): Are the wings large enough to make a satisfying meal, or are they mostly skin and bones?
Total: 20 points possible
We also took notes on the service, the beer list, how comfortable a place was, and whatever other intangibles jumped out at us. We took the sauce-stained score sheets from people as they fell in and out of the crawl. At our peak, we had upwards of 20 wing-crawlers. At the very end, we were left with a brave, intrepid, chicken-stuffed group of 6. They are truly the Greatest Generation.
Here is your Top 10 Not on a Top 10 List. The Not Top 10.
10. Flo & Santos Pizza and Pierogi (South Loop, 1310 S. Wabash)
Exterior: 3 Interior: 3 Sauce/Rub: 2.83 Size/Meat: 3.17 Total: 12/20
The last stop of the evening ended on a good note, in this gem of Italian and Polish cuisines. Flo & Santos specializes in pizza and perogies, but they make some decent chicken wings and even better pork wings (we aren’t basing this rating on the pork wings, but we had to try them). They had a nice crisp to the skin, but lacked just a bit in the sauce department compared to the othre places. If you’re in the South Loop, stop by and grab the wings
(COUGHCOUGHPORKCOUGH) as an appetizer with your pizza. Flo & Santos
9. Polk Street Pub (University Village, 548 W. Polk)
Exterior: 3 Interior: 3 Sauce/Rub: 3 Size/Meat: 3.17 Total: 12.17
Did you know there is a dark and dingy dive bar in the south loop next to the Pink Monkey? Neither did we. Then, 14 stops and 11 hours into things, we suddenly lurched into an Irish bar staffed by Polish bartenders playing exclusively country music. It turns out that if you wander into this Lynchian scene, you can find some great beers and pretty good wings. They don’t over-sauce and the wings are nice and meaty. This seems like a great drunken late night joint. Keep it in your back pocket as a cool wildcard dive bar. Polk Street Pub
8. Joong Boo Korean Market (Avondale, 3333 N. Kimball)
Exterior: 4 Interior: 2.33 Sauce/Rub: 4 Size/Meat: 2.44 Total: 12.77
If you’re in need of some groceries you can’t read the label on, turn off of 90 at the Kimball exit and be sure not to miss the pre-packed wings from the tiny restaurant crammed into this Korean supermarket. The sauce is so sticky and sweet it reminded us of candied bacon. The size (easily the smallest wing we had all day) held them back a bit, as did the fact that they were fried long ago and kept warm in a takeout container. But they’re delicious candied chicken lollipops, and Joong Boo is a cool enough experience overall that you shouldn’t miss the experience. EXPERIENCE! Joong Boo Market
7. Kelly’s Pub (Lincoln Park, 949 W. Webster)
Exterior: 3.78 Interior: 3.33 Sauce/Rub: 3.33 Size/Meat: 3.11 Total: 13.56
Kelly’s is nothing that you expect from Lincoln Park. It’s a cozy, old-school oasis from the drunken 21-year-old children spilling out of bars that we won’t name, but that rhyme with Don Jarleycorn. Kelly’s has a tiny shoebox of a kitchen that puts out these surprisingly spot-on classic Buffalo wings. Comments from the wing crawlers indicated that was was as close to the Plantonic ideal of Classic Bar Buffalo Wing as we got all day. It doesn’t hurt that it’s the kind of place you just want to hang out at for hours. Kelly’s Pub
6. The Red Lion Lincoln Square (Lincoln Square, 4749 N. Rockwell)
Exterior: 2.75 Interior: 3.75 Sauce/Rub: 4 Size/Meat 3.5 Total: 13.88
For all the terrible faux-“pubs” in our city, it’s good to know that there’s at least one place that feels like a warm English pub. It’s tucked away just north of the Rockwell Brown Line stop. There’s a good selection of English cider and ale, and a fairly expansive menu of pub classics. The wings show Indian influence in a nod to modern London. Our favorite coconut green curry wings were joined by red curry and tandoori wings. While they suffered a bit in the scoring for their soft exteriors, we loved the juicy insides and the exceptionally tasty sauces – it was one of just five places to score a 4 or higher on sauce. The Red Lion
5. The Hidden Shamrock (Lakeview, 2723 N. Halsted)
Exterior: 3.25 Interior: 3.38 Sauce/Rub: 3.25 Size/Meat: 3.38 Total: 14.25
The scoring Hidden Shamrock achieved is even more impressive when you consider the adversity. When we walked in, it looked like a typical Chicago Irish bar, smelled like a college bar that had gone heavy on the cleanser after a busy Friday night, and was rocking the previous night’s playlist of terrible dance music. They totally forgot one of our beers. But as soon as they brought out a trio of garlic Buffalo, Jack Daniel’s honey-glazed, and spicy BBQ wings, we forgot all of these things. There were some arguments over the Jack Daniel’s sauce but overall, they have perfectly crisp skin, and the garlic-Buffalo sauce is a winner. Even though they’re served uncut and with the tips attached, we have no problem recommending the wings. Can’t say the same for the music. Hidden Shamrock
4. Lucky’s Sandwich Company (Wicker Park, 1635 N. Milwaukee)
Exterior: 3.86 Interior: 3.29 Sauce/Rub: 3.71 Size/Meat: 3.57 Total: 14.43
When you walk into the Wicker Park location of giant sandwich purveyor Lucky’s, you might have a drunken flashback of a place called Plan B. It used to be in that very spot. Today, Lucky’s has taken out the stripper poles and replaced them with some pretty mean wings. Our surprise favorite was the dry-rubbed Old Bay wings, even with no native Marylanders to skew the voting. Lucky’s Sandwich Company
3. The Aberdeen Tap (West Town, 440 N. Aberdeen)
Exterior: 3.33 Interior: 4 Sauce/Rub: 5 Size/Meat: 3.83 Total: 16.17
While it might be (theoretically?) agonizing to lose out on second by a mere hundredth of a point, Aberdeen achieved what no other restaurant in our crawl could – a perfect 5 on all the score sheets for their delicious, scientifically perfect sauces. The jerk sauce is a perfect lesson in balancing blazing heat and rich flavor. The chiliyaki wings were even better. What’s more, it’s a great neighborhood bar that still feels a bit upscale. It’s great to sit at their bar, select a beer off of their solid list, and have a chat with their incredibly friendly bartenders. We had this one:
Bartender: “What’s with the sheets?”
Us: “We’re doing a wing crawl of 15 places.”
Bartender: “Oh can I see the list?”
(looks at list)
Bartender: “BOOOOOO! Boo other wing places. You don’t need to go anywhere else.”
We appreciate a bartender who can get into the spirit of a good wing crawl. And after trying the wings, damned if she wasn’t nearly correct. Aberdeen Tap
2. Cobra Lounge (Near West, 235 N. Ashland)
Exterior: 4.17 Interior: 3.83 Sauce/Rub: 4.18 Size/Meat: 4 Total: 16.18
You might have seen the big bearded guys (and less often the rare big bearded lady) smoking outside of Cobra between beers or heavy metal sets. You may even have venutred in for a show and a beer. What you might not have done is thought to eat here, and that needs to change right the fuck now. Specifically, you need to come in and check out their killer smoked wings, crisped in the fryer and finished with their house-made Buffalo sauce. The smoke gives a complexity to the wings and an extra dimension to the sauce that nearly everyone commented on in their notes. Man up and go there for dinner tonight (unless you’re reading this on a Sunday, when they’re closed). Eat wings for dinner. Only wings. (Okay, you can have some beer too.) Cobra Lounge
1. Great Sea Chinese Restaurant (Albany Park, 3254 W. Lawrence)
Exterior: 4.85 Interior: 4.28 Sauce/Rub: 4.57 Size/Meat: 4.42 Total: 18.12
In plotting the events of this massive 12-hour undertaking, we were all very careful to warn people not to rate things too high too early or too late. There’s a rating bias that can show up in an activity like this and skew results to the detriment of those in the middle. What we did not count on, however, was starting the day with the perfect wing. Our mistake. They hit the mark so hard that nowhere else in the city could touch them. And we couldn’t penalize them for being both incredible and geographically first. That’s just un-American.
The wings – cut to the bone near the joint (Frenched), fried to near-shattering crispness, and served with a sweet, spicy, rich sauce at 15 per order – might be the best in the city. To hell with the other lists. This is one they missed. Every table at the place had a plate of wings among the giant spreads of food. As a bonus, grab a refreshing Lucky Buddha beer in a bottle shaped after the titular deity.
Go to Great Sea. Order the wings. That’s an order from ManBQue. Great Sea