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Food Issue - Wingin' it

Games and hot wings go hand in hand. Here are our best bets for wings in Atlanta.

Chicken wings (aka hot wings, Buffalo wings, or just plain wings) are America's quintessential game day food. Restaurateur Teressa Bellissimo is credited with inventing the saucy, finger-staining nibbles in 1964 after a crate of chicken wings was mistakenly delivered to her husband Frank's Anchor Bar restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y. One night, Teressa was asked to whip up some impromptu freebies to treat a few regulars. According to her son Dominic, she took the ingredients that were on-hand and, well, she winged it.

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Made from a previously undesirable portion of the bird that was usually reserved for making sauces and stocks, modern chicken wings are typically cut in half to create the drumstick and the flat. The bone-in pieces are then deep fried and coated in a mixture of cayenne pepper sauce and butter. In general, the freshness of the meat, the presence of a juicy interior and a crispy exterior, and the sauce's lip-smacking balance of heat and tang are what set the best hot wings apart.

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Atlanta's chicken-wingdom is robust. Most local joints serve an assortment of traditional flavors: an original Buffalo version, lemon pepper, barbecue. Others choose to delve into more creative territory such as the Local's mushu plum or Graveyard Tavern's White Trash BBQ (mayo, mustard, horseradish, garlic). It would be impossible to mention every worthy candidate in town. We agree Three Dollar Café, Mobeta, J.R. Crickets, and many others warrant praise. But here's a list of our favorites — think of them as friendly recommendations — nevertheless.

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Dive Bar Delight: Jack's Pizza and Wings

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Jack's is a rare, dying breed of bar, with cheap beer, the lingering smoke of yesterday's cigarettes, and food as chill as its atmosphere. The graffiti-covered Old Fourth Ward dive is a lil' dim and scruffy, but its caliber of hot wings is illuminating. With the same snap as fried wings, it's hard to believe they are baked. Because they're cooked to order, it can take around 20 minutes before they hit the table, but they're worth the wait. Underneath the crispy, crunchy skin, the meat is so tender it falls off the bone. Plus, baking seems to lessen the caloric guilt associated with eatin' wings, right? Sauces range from the usual suspects like hot, barbecue, and lemon pepper to honey bourbon, garlic parm, sriracha, and stupid hot. Jack's wackadoo flavors like cinnamon or strawberry glaze seem bonkers, but work alone or merged as combos like strawberry-hot. Get five wings for $5.99 or 10 for $10.99. Each order comes with celery sticks and your choice of ranch or blue cheese dressing. 676 Highland Ave. N.E. 404-525-4444. www.jacksatlanta.com.

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Smokin' Hot (or should we say Foxy): Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q

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Fox Bros. jumbo wings are so plump, it's hard to imagine the size of the chickens to which they were once attached. Brothers Justin and Jonathan Fox dry rub the wings first, smoke them over hickory for three hours, fry them crisp, and then douse them in their tomato-based, tangy-sweet wing sauce. The meat is flavored with a hint of smoke, the sauce adds a subtle heat, and frying brings the crunch. You probably couldn't replicate these at home without Fox Bros.' famed 1000-pound smoker, but if you want to try, their sauce and dry rub are available at Kroger, Whole Foods, and Buford Highway Farmers Market. Wings come in baskets of six for $8 or 12 for $15, and are served with celery and a choice of house-made ranch or blue cheese. 1238 DeKalb Ave. N.E. 404-577-4030. www.foxbrosbbq.com.

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Saigon Street Food: Nam Phuong

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Exotic flavors are what set an order of Nam Phuong's glazed wings, aka canh ga chien nuoc mam, apart. A plate of these Vietnamese-inspired drums and flats comes lacquered in a finger-licking red chili sauce punched up with garlic, sugar, scallion, caramelized onion and, of course, the elemental Vietnamese staple, fish sauce. Chef Du Nguyen has been cooking these wings the same way since he was 16 years old in Vietnam. They are fried to order, quickly sprinkled with chili flakes, and then glazed in the mildly sweet, funky sauce. An order includes eight wings for $7.95 and comes with a scoop of rice, slices of cucumber and tomato, and pickled cabbage, carrots, and jicama. 4051 Buford Highway N.E., Doraville. 404-633-2400. www.namphuongatlanta.com.

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Shack Attack: Jamal's Buffalo Wings

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This cash-only outpost near the Georgia Dome sits on the edge of a parking lot marked by a spritely colored credit loan sign. But don't let Jamal's digs fool you. The no-frills shack pumps out some of the very best wings Atlanta has to offer. Choose from hot, mild, ranch, lemon pepper, barbecue, or sweet and sour. The hot buffalo sauce has a Tabasco level heat on the Scoville scale, but its flavor tastes more like Texas Pete. If it's not too busy, you can watch your wings drop into the fryer and come out perfectly cooked in minutes — eight to be exact, according to the cook. The only drawback here is that there is no seating, but a box of Jamal's wings is certainly worth the drive. Orders come in five for $4.25 or 10 for $7.50. Celery and dressing — blue cheese or ranch — are extra and cost 25 cents and 50 cents respectively. 10 Northside Drive. 404-221-0088.

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The Classic: Clay's Sports Café

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It's easy to drive past the unassuming strip mall Clay's calls home. Nestled between a lamp store and credit loan shop, the wee neighborhood joint specializes in hot wing excellence. Braves schedules and metal beer signs are scattered on the walls and TVs are hung so every seat has a view. Clay's wings strike the ideal balance between skin crispness and meat tenderness. There are 19 flavor choices, which amounts to hundreds of possible combos. Mixing and matching is encouraged. The medium sauce is buttery and rich with a salty tang from the pepper sauce and a kick of lingering heat you don't want to end. Clay's excellent lemon pepper wings are shatteringly crisp and have a spicy, citrusy zing. Served on wax paper-lined metal pizza pans, you can get five wings for $4.25 or 10 for $7.49. Each order comes with celery and house-made ranch or blue cheese. 6518 Roswell Road N.E., Sandy Springs. 404-843-1233. www.clayssportscafe.com.

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Where to eat wings and catch the big game

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1. The Albert

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Sports fans or not, this neighborhood watering hole should be on every wing-lover’s regular rotation. The Albert’s wings come in three flavors: Buffalo, ranch-rubbed, and smoked. Get the smoked. Each bite produces an other-wordly blend of crackly skin, woodsy heat, and super-tender meat. 5 wings for $6. 918 Austin Ave. N.E. 404-872-4990. www.thealbertatlanta.com.

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2. Hudson Grille

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Between the friendly service, snazzy digs, and many giant glowing screens strategically positioned for every possible vantage point, heading to one of Hudson Grille’s seven metro locations to watch the game is an easy call. The fresh-tasting wings come in regular flavors such as lemon pepper and Buffalo, but there are also less predictable varieties such as Thai ginger and more. Hudson’s wings aren’t the biggest specimens in the world, but what they lack in size they make up in crackly, lip-smacking pleasure. 6 wings for $7.75. 942 Peachtree St. 404-892-0892. And other metro Atlanta locations. www.hudsongrille.com.

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3. Moe’s and Joe’s Tavern

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Open since 1947, Moe’s and Joe’s has been around longer than the creation of the Buffalo wing. Their version is textbook: average-size wings deep-fried, tossed in a vinegary-cayenne-butter sauce and served with celery and blue cheese. The crisp exterior gives way to a tender interior with sauce melted into it. 12 wings for $8.50. 1033 N. Highland Ave. N.E. 404-873-6090. www.moesandjoes.com.

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4. T.MAC

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It’s impossible to talk wings and sports bars in Atlanta without bringing the chain formerly known as Taco Mac — and its seven ITP locations — into the conversation. With a dozen or so flavors ranging from Buffalo to sweet chili sesame and chipotle honey, a fleet of flat screen TVs, and a massive beer selection, T.MAC is a convenient triple threat wing destination for sports fans all over the city. 6 wings for $7.75. 1006 N. Highland Ave. 404-873-6529. And other metro Atlanta locations. www.tmacrestaurants.com.

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—Additional reporting by Stephanie Dazey.

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