Is anything more delicious than a fine, aged-to-perfection food rivalry? Western New York boasts some classics.
Sahlen’s and Wardynski’s. Tops and Wegmans. Louie’s and Ted’s, whose rival hot dogs have already figured on our Western New York bucket list.
And the spiciest duo of all, Anchor Bar and Duff’s.
The Anchor Bar, a previous stop on our 100 Things list, is credited with inventing the wing in 1964. Duff’s, a tavern dating to 1946 and named for owner Louise Duffney, was hot on its heels, dishing up the delicacy since 1969. Both are famous. Both have multiple locations. Both, working together, could probably conquer the world.
Calling the original Duff’s on Sheridan Drive on a Monday morning, The News was told, “Can you hold?”
We soon found out why: Arriving at noon, we found ourselves up against a tour group of about 20 people from New Zealand, Australia and the UK. They had seen Duff’s wings on TV, and were eager to try them.
If you have to wait, there’s plenty to look at. Photos show Duff’s through the years. In one classic ‘60s shot, a neon sign spells out “Cocktail Lounge.” The place has changed. But just as with chicken wings, the bones are the same. The arches over the booths, the narrow old restrooms, the nooks and crannies could only have evolved organically.
Duff’s trademark is its range of hot sauces. No mere “mild, medium, or hot.” There’s Mild Medium, Medium Light, Medium Hot – and so forth, all the way to the dreaded Death.
“WARNING: Medium is Hot,” Duff’s warns. “Medium Hot is Very Hot. Hot is Very, Very Hot!”
In the crowded dining room, it became clear you have to choose wisely. Raj Talla, visiting from Portland, Ore., said he and his friends had ordered Suicide, and regretted it.
“We should have ordered Death,” he said.
Gretchen Rabjohns, of Rochester, was here with her friend Jeanne Votry, celebrating 50 years of friendship.
“I always say they’re the best wings on the planet,” Rabjohns said. “They’re cooked perfectly. And they have such a range of sauces. You can always get what you want. It’s no frills,” she added, looking appreciatively around. “Just chicken wings.”
In a thrilling twist, Duff’s let us glimpse the narrow, crowded galley kitchen.
You know those pictures you’ve seen of the open-hearth area of Bethlehem Steel? That’s what this was like. Workers hefted gallon jugs of hot sauce, from Hot to Suicide and -- lo, there was Death, for which our new friend Raj had been yearning. Giant pots, one scribbled “hot,” bubbled on the stove. Baskets of wings were pre-loaded, ready for the industrial Vulcan deep fryers. Duff’s partially cooks the wings beforehand, so they can be ready in a flash.
Whoosh! Wings flew into a fryer. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, would approve of what was being done in his name.
“Excuse me. Excuse me.” We were blocking the cash register, which sits in a tiny alcove by the kitchen entrance.
Prudently, we retreated to the dining room. By that time, we were dying for Duff’s, accept no substitutes. We settled in with an order of 10, for $10.99.
Wings are made to be shared, and formalities crumble like – well, like blue cheese. As with Russians sharing vodka, or Chinese sharing dim sum, there is an etiquette. Don’t hog all the drums, be courteous when dipping, pause now and then for a pious carrot stick, lick your fingers but wipe them afterwards. We fell into the ancient ritual. The sauce had a good kick. It was Medium Light, chosen after a long conference with bartender Michelle Kleinfelder. The skin crunched. The meat fell cleanly off the bones, a rare and wonderful thing in a Buffalo wing. The blue cheese was thick and viscous.
So, the big question. Anchor Bar vs. Duff’s?
There is only one answer. Do your research. Go to one. Go to the other.