Drumettes or flats? Bone-in or boneless? Dry rub or wet? Basic buffalo hot or flavored? Chicken wings are complex things with as many varieties as there are restaurants in Charleston.
For Daniel Brock, a wing aficionado and son of a Buffalo, New York, native, wings from Duff's Famous Wings in Buffalo are the gold standard. He prefers drumettes but cleans his plate no matter what. "With all due respect, wet wings are almost without fail the way to go. A dry rub base is fine, but toss them in sauce!" he says. And as for different flavored wings, he says, "Garlic dry-rub can get out of my face."
Ask around town and Home Team BBQ is clearly considered the standard bearer of great chicken wings in Charleston. Even a chef like Alex Lira of Bar Normandy, who prides himself on having secret sleeper picks, admits that Home Team's wings are his favorite.
Home Team smokes and then fries its wings. They are served with neither blue cheese nor ranch but with Alabama white barbecue sauce, a mayonnaise-based dip. Brock, who prefers the classic style, says he and a friend once successfully had them toss the wings in hot sauce at Home Team after they were cooked. "It took already good wings to the next level," he says, but they were told this special request probably wouldn't be accommodated every time.
I think Home Team's unsauced wings are pretty tasty, but the best in town? Before we deem them our favorite, let's take a survey of some of the city's other options.
153 East Bay St., downtown Charleston
$12 for order of 8-9 wings, based on weight
$1.33-$1.56 per wing
No celery, no dip
This casual Mexican restaurant masterminded by James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock comes up a lot when chicken wings are mentioned. Perhaps it's the ritual of putting the wings in a bag, saucing them with Valentina hot sauce and shaking them up in front of you before putting them on the plate. These wings are brined and then char-grilled. Some people in my tasting group loved the grilled flavor, while others said it was over-charred. Perhaps it was an off night in the kitchen, but I was disappointed in the overwhelming char flavor because it overwhelmed the Valentina.
18 Vendue Range, downtown Charleston
$19.99 for 20 wings
$0.99 per wing
Celery, blue cheese and ranch
The Griffon is near Waterfront Park and is one of those dark places that lures you in with friendly bartenders, cold beer and hearty baskets of food. These big boys are fried and sauced in a classic hot buffalo sauce and served with a pile of cold celery to help your mouth handle the heat, as it should be. These weren't as crisp as I like, but I have a feeling we, arriving mere minutes before the kitchen closed, forced the cook to turn the fryer back on. Cooked at a higher temp for a few more minutes, these would've been perfect.
970 Morrison Drive, Charleston
6 for $6
12 for $11
18 for $17
$0.91 to $1 per wing
No celery, no sauce
When Royal American updated its menu a few months ago, they explicitly stated that these wings were meant as an alternative in a town dominated by Home Team's highly favored wings. Called Magic Wings, these guys are fried, frozen, and fried again to create a crispy exterior. The spice has some Sichuan pepper and some say it tastes like fancy Doritos. These come with a wedge of lime instead of dipping sauce. Daniel Brock opines, "It's all about the lime to unlock the flavor. I'm a fan of these."
131 Columbus St., downtown Charleston
6 for $8
$1.33 per wing
Celery costs .25 extra, blue cheese and ranch dip
I was a bit annoyed at the extra cost of celery, but when you take into account the amount of "free" celery that might go in the trash, I'm OK with this upcharge if it prevents food waste. I also like that a huge pile of celery came on its own plate because there's really nothing worse than a warmish piece of celery with wing sauce on it. The Alley has several flavors to choose from but we picked regular buffalo and honey habanero. Let's just go ahead and say that people should stop making wings sweet. Keep them hot and give me some chunky blue cheese and I'll be happy. The honey habanero were perfectly acceptable but compared with the perfectly cooked and sauced buffalo wings, they seemed somewhat unlovable.
16 Blake St., Charleston
6 for $6
$1 per wing
No celery; ranch dressing
Hannibal's wings were a recommendation from Brock, who says these are the best he's found in town. The six-piece drumette special comes in hot sauce, lemon pepper, honey mustard and barbecue. We tried the classic and the lemon pepper. The buffalo sauce was the better bet, but both were good and I got closer to understanding Atlanta's lemon pepper wing obsession (documented in an episode of "First We Feast." It's worth a watch). I didn't realize they served beer here until after we polished off two baskets of wings, but the sweet tea actually tasted pretty good with the wings.
714 Rutledge Ave., downtown Charleston
12 for $11.95
$0.99 per wing
Celery, ranch and blue cheese
Another classic bar with a solid offering of classic wings. They have plenty of flavors and a legendary Moe Hot if you want to get your tongue a-tingling. They also have sports on the TVs and cold beer on tap, so it's kind of a perfect place to go for wings.
15 Magnolia Road, Charleston
$12.50 for order of 8
$1.56 per wing
No celery, specialty dip
This favorite Avondale bar has great specials on tacos during happy hour but unfortunately doesn't discount its chicken wings. These are probably the most unusual we encountered. Choose from a wet-and-spicy red curry or a honey-jerk dry rub and don't even think about doing half and half. The menu requires you to make a choice. I chose the honey-jerk ones, which came with a creamy kiwi banana dip. I probably should've chosen the red curry, because while these were expertly cooked, they were a little too sweet for my taste.
After a week of eating chicken wings, Home Team was beaten only by Hannibal's classic buffalo offering. Other wing places that Brock says are worth checking out are Jim N' Nick's, Swig and Swine, Ye Olde Fashioned and perhaps even Richard's in Mount Pleasant. He says when he went to check them out, the roof had sprung a leak above the fryer.