“Whereas, the success of Mr. Bellissimo’s tasty experiment in 1964 has grown to the point where thousands of pounds of chicken wings are consumed by Buffalonians in restaurants and taverns throughout our city each week, the city of Buffalo officially declares July 29, 1977, Chicken Wing Day.”
Shuffling off to Buffalo was once a common occurrence for Don Day. For one simple reason. The drinking age in Ontario was an ancient 21. While across the border it was a mere 18. And of course I began the journey well before I reached the age of majority.
We’d start Friday nights at The Palace evaluating the attributes of the ecdysiasts (my favorite was Denise Darcel), then head to the Stage Door on Pearl, arriving at the same time as some of the cast of the show who would now ply a second trade (but never my Denise). Apart from the ladies, our favorite local delicacies were the beef on weck (a roll topped with salt and caraway seeds) and the fried bologna sandwich. But on all of those excursions, I never saw a single chicken wing on a menu.
In 1964, that all changed, thanks to the Bellissimo family and the tavern they’d owned since the thirties. There are a number of stories of how exactly the Buffalo wing made it on the menu. Since I’m an avid reader of the New Yorker, I’ll take this account that appeared in the magazine back in 2008.
“According to Dom, it was late on a Friday night in 1964, a time when Roman Catholics still confined themselves to fish and vegetables on Fridays. He was tending the bar. Some regulars had been spending a lot of money, and Dom asked his mother to make something special to pass around gratis at the stroke of midnight. Teressa Bellissimo picked up some chicken wings, parts of a chicken that most people do not consider even good enough to give away to barflies—and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.”
These days, The Anchor Bar seems to more focused on selling franchises than chicken wings. But in San Miguel de Allende, the tavern’s sauce recipe lives on. It’s one of 12 different sauces that Debra Ingram is making at ChupAlitas, San Miguel’s new home for wings.
Last week, I sent out an email to “the gentlemen who lunch” asking for help in rating the sauces and seeing if these wings were a cluck above the rest. On Thursday, 28 guys climbed the stairs to Chupalitas. Guys like wings.
We obviously couldn’t sample all of the sauces so I asked Debra Ingram for help. I wanted to know which were her personal favorites.
“We are proud of all our sauces. I make each one from scratch at home, but I think our favorite is Charlie Harper and our homemade Barbecue. Those, along with the Buffalo and Italian Buffalo are the people’s favorites”, said Debbie. “But then again, the Mango Habanero and Bangkok Dangerous are also top choices. The Honey Garlic is popular with our Canadian clients as well as the Oriental, a chipotle based sauce. Probably the least asked for sauces are the Honey Mustard and Hatuey, a spicy citrus sauce. Our Spicy Orange and Tamarindo sauces are also quite popular with our Mexican clients.”
I couldn’t remember a single restaurant or bar anywhere with so many choices. But there still seemed to be something missing. Buffalo wings almost always come in three different strengths, mild, medium and hot. And usually also in extra hot with inventive names like wildfire or suicide or inferno or something to do with the morning after. ChupAlitas has just one strength. I asked Debra Ingram why.
“Well, frankly, other places take a perfectly good Buffalo sauce and add different amounts of Tabasco sauce to make it hotter and hotter, causing a terrible burning sensation in your stomach”, said Debbie. “We refuse to sacrifice taste for heat. Our Buffalo sauce is the original Anchor Bar recipe, It is smooth and delicious and has just the right amount of heat to not send someone to the hospital with bleeding ulcers! Even our hottest sauces have great flavor and not just heat. For us, flavor is everything.”
So many sauces. So little time (and I like the way ChupAlitas inventively brings an ice cube tray to help you pre-sample the choices). We finally agreed on four. The Buffalo, an absolute essential, plus the Barbecue, Charlie Harper and, as we had a lot of Canadians at the table, Honey Garlic.
The wings began arriving at the table. And the guys began eating. And the guys began talking about them. And the guys kept eating. And kept talking.
As I ate mine, I thought of all the criteria I have for the best wings and how I thought ChupAlitas measured up.
The best chicken wings are fresh, never frozen. One checkmark for ChupAlitas. The best chicken wings come from a chicken that’s at least seven weeks old so there’s plenty of meat on the bones. Two checkmarks for ChupAlitas. The best chicken wings are only lightly battered so that you hardly know the coating is there. Three checkmarks for ChupaAlitas. The best chicken wings are deep fried (not baked) at a high heat to a golden brown. Four checkmarks for Chupalitas. The best chicken wings are crispy on the outside and moist and juicy on the inside. Five checkmarks for Chupalitas.
The wings obviously came from an experienced kitchen. I asked Debra Ingram how she and her husband Joe got into the restaurant business.
“I guess you could say I was raised in the food biz”, Debbie told me. “When I was about 13 or 14, my parents put all their belongings into storage and we, as a family, ran off with a traveling carnival. My father modified a small, old camper…it actually looked like a baked potato…into a carnival food wagon and we sold “Flossie’s Funnel Cakes”. In fact, we introduced funnel cakes to Cheyenne, Wyoming during their Frontier Days celebration. Just imagine my little sister and I dressed alike running around town giving out samples of funnel cakes, we even passed them out to the Hell’s Angels who were cruising through town.
“Joe on the other hand always liked cooking, but his passion was eating and especially eating wings! He has eaten wings around the globe…USA, Mexico, Guam, Korea and Japan…just to name a few. When we got together it was a match made in heaven! We helped his nephew start the first wing restaurant in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. Later we relocated to Tampico where we set up a food trailer on the beach during the weekends. However, we soon got tired of fighting the sand, wind and drunks, and moved it all into our garage. There were people lined up around the block waiting 40 minutes for a table just to eat our wings. In 2012, we rented a place and had a real mom and pop restaurant. But in 2014 the insecurity in Tampico started hitting too close to home so we packed up and came to San Miguel.”
The guys chowed down over 300 wings at lunch. Which was chicken feed compared to the 1.3 billion that would be consumed a few days later on Super Bowl Sunday. And it’s not unusual for chicken wings to be priced even higher than boneless breasts at this time of year.
Most of those Super Bowl wings would be bought out of freezers in supermarkets, already sauced, and ready to be dried out in the oven before they ever hit the coffee table in front of the TV.
Our Chupalitas wings were wet and juicy. I’d asked the guys to try as many of the sauces as possible and let me know what was their favorite.
Everybody seemed OK with the Barbecue. It wasn’t overly sweet as some BBQ sauces can be and it had a gentle little kick. It only made it to the top of two lists though.
In third place and my personal favorite overall was the Charlie Harper. Named after the sitcom character once played by Charlie Sheen and watched by everyone until he was replaced by Ashton Kutcher and then only watched by women, this sauce had similarities to Buffalo but with a little extra heat. Six of the guys agreed with my choice.
In second place was the Buffalo sauce with nine votes. Debra Ingram uses the recipe from the Anchor Bar with one little exception. She skips the vinegar. The result might just be better than the original.
And the favorite sauce of “the gentlemen who lunch”? It was a big surprise to me but the honey garlic took first with ten votes. I think it was a hint of ginger that made the difference.
And, overall, after we’d gone through almost as many serviettes as we had wingettes and drumettes and were still pointing out another spot on someone’s moustache, another dribble on someone’s chin, how did ChupAlitas wings rank against all of the other wings “the gentlemen” have had over the years. I asked the guys to score them from one to ten. The lowest scores were sevens. The most common scores were eights. And the top scores, including my score, were nines. And one other thing you should know, men never award tens. Except to women. And only when they’re in some state of undress.
ChupAlitas has been in San Miguel for over a year now. And at their current location for a couple of months. They’ve finally got their sign approved and up, though it’s still not the easiest thing to spot from the street. Inside it’s a work in progress with Joe Ingram trying to give a barn of a room the look of a sports bar.
“They’ll soon be gone”, said Joe (who we’ve now nicknamed lord of the wings), referring to the fluorescent lights. “Our new fixtures are this close to being ready and I’m sourcing some sports memorabilia for the walls.”
At a poker game, the night before our ChupAlitas tasting, Lou Campese said to me, “You know what San Miguel needs? A good wing joint.”
I think they have one. It’s called ChupAlitas.
ChupAlitas is located upstairs at Ancha de San Antonio 3 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. In addition to wings, they serve burgers, foot-long chili dogs, burritos, and some excellent battered fries and onion rings. They are open Sunday and Monday, 1:00 pm to 8:00 pm; Wednesday and Thursday, 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm; Friday and Saturday, 1:00 pm to 11:00 pm.