When Al Burns moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to Kansas City in 1996, he made it his mission to find the metro’s best hot wings.
“I’ll be honest, I wasn’t impressed,” Burns says. “It’s like going to Buffalo and expecting Kansas City-style barbecue — you’re not gonna find it.”
The Buffalonian found something wrong with every wing: Too breaded. Too saucy. Too spicy. Too big. In his hometown, where Buffalo wings were invented, he explains, it’s “a mortal sin” to serve wings whole, with the drumstick, flat and tip intact. Otherwise, he says, “when I’m eating it on one end it’s pokin’ me in the ear.”
Don’t even get him started on the Midwest’s favorite condiment, ranch dressing.
When his mission failed, the pharmaceutical sales manager started making hot wings at home in a turkey fryer. They were a touchdown at Super Bowl parties, and friends urged him to start selling them. Nearly eight years ago, Burns left his career behind and followed his wing dream by opening Al’s Bar & Grill in a strip mall at 10911 N.W. Missouri 45 in Parkville.
Burns decked out his neighborhood dive with Buffalo Bills helmets and Sabres hockey jerseys. He put cold beer and Buffalo wings on the menu, and it didn’t take long to attract a steady flow of regulars, many of whom hailed from western New York.
Today, Al’s Bar & Grill sells an average of 6,400 wings — 800 pounds of chicken! — every week.
Al’s wings are fried twice at a steady 350 degrees, first to cook the chicken, then to crisp the skin. They’re lightly sauced with a blend of butter, top-secret seasonings and Frank’s RedHot, which Burns calls the “gold standard” of sauce.
The cayenne pepper-scented wings cost $9.99 for 10 and are served steaming, sizzling-hot in a basket. Customers can choose their dipping sauce (ranch, blue cheese or both) and the heat level (hot, medium or mild). The chicken’s skin is perfectly crisp and blanketed in just enough sauce to leave your tongue tingling.
“The sauce is there for the flavor,” Burns says. “It’s not like putting gravy on mashed potatoes.”
But Al’s isn’t the only Kansas City-area bar or restaurant with flocks of wing-loving customers. And in the kingdom of barbecue, some say sauce reigns supreme.
At Wings Cafe, with locations at 516 N.W. Englewood Road in the Northland and 3927 Broadway in Westport, co-owner Eze Redwood and his family make Buffalo wings with a top-secret blend of three hot sauces. Then they spice it up with bold seasonings to make variations such as Cajun Buffalo, Caribbean Buffalo, Italian Buffalo and Dirty Buffalo — an homage to soul food in the Deep South.
Redwood likes Wings Cafe’s Cajun Buffalo wings ($7.69 for six) lightly breaded, which adds a crunchy coat.
“The breading bonds with the sauce,” he says. “It’s the peanut butter to the Buffalo’s jelly.”
Those who prefer thicker breading should try Game Day Chicken Wings and Fish, 8950 Wornall Road. There, country-fried chicken is coated in classic orange Buffalo sauce or a more complex house-made hot sauce with a deeper red color. The jumbo, whole wings are popular at breakfast (a waffle and two whole wings cost $8.50) or for tailgating parties (smaller “party wings” cost $25 for 20).
Grinders, which has locations at 417 E. 18th St. in the Crossroads, 10240 Pflumm Road in Lenexa and 206 Choctaw St. in Leavenworth, is known for using proprietary bottled sauces with intimidating names: Molten, Near Death and Death Nectar. The latter comes with an all-caps warning on the menu: “It will blow your mind and burn off a few taste buds.”
Those who are too proud to order Grinders’ “Death Wings” ($7.25 for six) with Wimpy sauce should try the sweet and (lightly) spicy Molten, which is probably the closest heat-wise to classic Buffalo sauce.
Jefferson’s Restaurant, with locations at 743 Massachusetts St. and 1540 Wakarusa Drive in Lawrence, offers 18 sauces with its chicken wings, from sweet Sriracha to mango habanero. The chain’s basic hot sauce is proprietary but is similar in color and flavor to Frank’s RedHot.
The Cheetos-orange sauce is hot enough to leave your lips tingling but not hot enough to make you sweat — especially if they’re enjoyed with a cool cup of ranch and crisp celery sticks. The wings are so popular that servers wear T-shirts that say “peace, love and hot wings,” and the place stays packed with college students, townies and sports fans. Even University of Kansas basketball coach Bill Self is a fan.
At El Pollo Rey, a grilled chicken joint at 901 Kansas Ave. in Kansas City, Kan., the Buffalo wings are fried to order, drenched in classic cayenne sauce and wrapped in foil. Open the packet, and pepper-scented steam bursts from the glossy red wings, which cost $6.50.
Those hungry enough to finish all eight often sop up the leftover sauce with fresh flour tortillas and wash it down with ice-cold bottles of Jarritos soda (the mango flavor is especially refreshing with the sweat-inducing wings).
Johnny’s Tavern, a Lawrence-based sports bar and restaurant with nine locations in the Kansas City area, puts a barbecue twist on the Buffalo delicacy with its popular Wilson’s Wings ($5.49 for six). The chicken is flash-fried, grilled until lightly charred, and finished with a sweet sauce that tastes like something you’d find at a backyard barbecue — if your neighbor was a champion grillmaster.
Charring the chicken also makes the skin extra crispy and the sauce stickier, so Johnny’s wings are slightly less messy to eat and not at all slimy.
Customers also request grilled hot wings at Tower Tavern, 401 E. 31st St. The grilled versions aren’t on the menu, but regulars caught on after owner Grant Naugle started making them for himself.
Tower Tavern’s charred Buffalo wings cost $12 per dozen (you can get a half order for $6) and are made by frying chicken from its raw state — no par-baking or pre-frying here. After sizzling on the grill, the chicken is tossed in sauce made by blending Frank’s RedHot with butter, then doctoring the mixture with secret spices. Like many local wing cooks, Naugle guards his recipe closely.
Kevin Timmons, co-owner of Nick and Jake’s, is the same way.
“If I tell you, I might have to kill you,” he says.
Timmons will reveal that when it comes to wings, size matters at Nick and Jake’s, a restaurant and bar with locations at 5031 Main St., 6830 W. 135th St. in Overland Park and 6325 Lewis St., Suite 110, in Parkville.
“If anything less than a jumbo-sized wing comes in, we don’t serve it,” Timmons says.
The wings ($10 for 12) are broken down into parts, blanched in the oven for eight minutes, spiced with salt, pepper, onion and garlic, cooled, and crisped to order in an extra-hot fryer reserved for chicken. They’re coated with a precisely measured mix of Frank’s RedHot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, butter, red wine vinegar and ground black pepper. A pot of cold and creamy house-made blue cheese dressing is served on the side.
At Martin City Brewing Co., 500 E. 135th St., customers can order their MCBC wings ($9 per pound) with blue cheese or “America sauce” — another name for ranch dressing.
Co-owner Matt Moore says the wing sauce is made by blending Frank’s RedHot with butter and Bulliard’s hot sauce, which adds a peppery Cajun bite. His recommended beer pairing is Hard Way IPA, a triple dry-hopped brew that counteracts heat with its citrusy punch.
Kansas Citians who prefer their wings served whole are all about the Peanut, a local chain so famous for its jumbo hot wings that they’re shipped nationwide.
Peanut regulars willingly wait a full 20 minutes for the gargantuan chicken bits to be cooked from their raw state — some even order the wings “extra crispy,” which takes 30 minutes.
“We make it fresh, we don’t pre-cook,” says Paco Diaz, kitchen manager at the Peanut at 7938 Santa Fe Drive in Overland Park. “That’s why we are the best.”
The jumbo delicacies (prices vary by location; they cost $10.99 per half dozen or $19.99 per dozen at the Overland Park locations) are messy to eat, so those who indulge shouldn’t be afraid to get saucy. The Peanut also has locations at 5000 Main St. south of the Plaza, 418 W. Ninth St. downtown, 219 S.E. Main St. in Lee’s Summit, 6409 N. Cosby Ave. in the Northland, 5400 Martway in Mission and 12663 Metcalf Ave. in Overland Park.
Like the Peanut, Minsky’s Pizza uses lots of Frank’s RedHot sauce on its jumbo wings ($9.99 for six). The chain with 17 locations in the metro is famous for pizza, but customers also can’t get enough spicy chicken.
Minsky’s adds extra flavor by marinating wings for 24 hours prior to cooking them in a fryer dedicated to wings, which prevents off flavors from, say, onion rings from joining the party.
Wing sauces vary by location, but Minsky’s general manager and partner Kenny Kantner says the customer favorite is Buffalo — followed by Sweet & Spicy and Whiskey BBQ. The wings are served with cool cucumber slices and the customer’s choice of dipping sauces (sorry Buffalonians: peppercorn ranch is more popular than blue cheese).
Like Al’s, Minsky’s adds spices to Frank’s RedHot to make a sauce that’s unique to Kansas City.
“We like to make it our own,” Kantner says.