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Photo by OCW staffWhile attending college in snowy South Bend, Indiana, my friends and I had a standing Tuesday-night date at Buffalo Wild Wings (BW3's for short), a Midwestern chain specializing in Buffalo-style chicken wings. For just 30 cents per wing, we gnawed on juicy chicken appendages slathered in any one of 12 sauces with nicknames such as "Blazin'" and "Caribbean Jerk." We'd emerge from BW3's two hours later, reeking of wet naps and buzzing from pints of Amber Bock, our lips searing, bellies full and—most important—enough cash left in our pockets to grab a pitcher or two later in the night.
I gave much thought to those Tuesday-night gorge-fests in these months after my summer graduation, lamenting Southern California's inferior chicken wings and the significantly higher bar tabs and dinner checks when buying said hens. But with Super Bowl fever rising—go, Patriots!—I found myself hankering for an intimidating pile of true-to-the-Midwest sauce-drenched chicken wings to accompany my gridiron screams. First, though, I had to find a hangout worthy of those BW3 days, a quest that carried me from wings-specific restaurants to sports bars and beyond.
With its dim lighting, cozy booths and just-shy-of-tacky wall-to-wall collection of Buffalo Bills football memorabilia interspersed with Little League team pictures, Wings 'N Things is like a portal to Eastern Standard Time. Authentic Buffalo-style wings (in hot sauces ranging from mild, medium, hot to "X-hot" and "Beyond Hot") are available in 10-piece ($5.75) or 16-piece ($7.95) servings. You can upgrade to garlic wings for about a quarter more; two hours later, your burps would turn Dracula to dust. Unfortunately, you cannot split orders between different flavors and hot sauces, but considering the cakewalk medium sauce, an order of solar-flare-worthy hot—or, if you're daring, X-hot—Wings 'N Things is an apt introductory course to Midwestern living. 18302 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 848-2767.
With 30 different flavors and hot sauces, the massive menu at Wingnuts surpasses even BW3's. You can't split orders, but the six-piece "taster" option ($4.25) is affordable enough so that even an order of three flavors won't leave you completely penniless for the rest of the evening. As for flavors, the Buffalo-style wings—which come in mild, medium, hot and Ouch!—are fairly standard but pale in comparison to such unusually appealing flavors as Thai (an evenly spicy mix of sweet and sour), Ragin' Cajun (as dry and salty as James Carville), and lemon garlic (lacking in overall heat, but featuring an unbeatable mix of lemon zest and crispy chicken). Some of the other flavors, though—like mango habañero and cheesy Cheddar (care for alfredo-like chicken wings? Me, neither)—are best left for small children and those with adventurous tongues: neither care what you put in front of them. 3030 Harbor Blvd., Ste. H-3, Costa Mesa, (714) 434-7700.
Despite falling a tad shy of Wingnuts' admirable selection of flavors, ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney trumps Wingnuts by truthfully emulating the Midwest's chicken-wing tradition and overzealous worship of sweaty guys 'n' gals who play with balls. Their wings, considering the faux-everything atmosphere in Downtown Disney, are shockingly tasty. The 10-piece "Pound of Buffalo Wings" appetizer won't burn a hole in your stomach (sadly) and, at $9.99, is pricier than similar platters at other restaurants. Nevertheless, the steep cost is well worth it for the chicken's deliciously juicy (read: not formerly frozen or mass-produced) texture. Best of all, the accompanying ranch dip is wonderfully thick—a bonus for those who, like me, are weary of the runny ranch dressing that restaurants so frequently attempt to pass off as dip. 1545 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 300-ESPN.
Still, my Midwestern college experience was best relived in a most obvious place: Fullerton's Off Campus Pub. Featuring an array of college sports uniforms, some classic Pabst Blue Ribbon advertisements and a plethora of pool tables, the pub immediately felt familiar, and its 10-piece "Off Campus Wings" appetizer ($7) hearkened back to BW3's comfy drunken charm. Despite appearing like a typical starter order, the wings, drenched in the pub's delicious hot—really, truly hot—sauce infused with peppers and onions, left my lips burning for more. It was just like the good ol' days, except for the Amber Bock—and, you know, the snow. 2736 E. Nutwood Ave., Fullerton, (714) 879-8094.