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Standing Room Only: Budacki's Drive-In

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Budacki's Drive-In

4739 N. Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL‎ 60625 (map); 773-561-1322
The Short Order: Juicy chicken wings in mutant Sriracha and buffalo wing sauce.
Want Fries with That? Surprisingly no.
Want Ketchup? Just to help get down the fries.

Budacki's Drive In has it all wrong. Though this Lincoln Square stand in Chicago has a large sign proudly proclaiming their "pomme frites," that's not what all the fuss is about here. The city has a remarkably good French fry stand culture where even the dingiest, dirtiest places may take the time to fry potatoes from scratch (check out Chickie's, 35th Street Red Hots and Jimmy's Red Hots for proof)—but not not at Budacki's. These come out bland, and are dumped from a frozen bag.

No, what you really want are the chicken wings.

Which is not something I'd ever really thought I'd say. I'm not the biggest chicken wing aficionado, and I'm not really sure what makes one deep-fried chicken wing better than the next. Properly fried chicken is a whole separate matter.

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As for chicken wings, unless you're smoking the chicken or poaching them in fat for hours, I figured they'd all come out the same. But some very positive words from Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans about Budacki's wings lured me to give them a try. I'm hooked. Why these wings aren't emblazoned on the side of the shack in huge letters is beyond me, but hopefully I can accurately describe them.

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The sauce is an honest-to-goodness combination of traditional buffalo sauce and fiery Sriracha. The two don't sound like they would play well together, but they feed off each other's heat, one-upping the levels until they hit your lip. The Sriracha hits first with a blast of vinegar and ringing spice, which is slightly mellowed by the relatively milder heat of the buffalo sauce. The sauce makes just about everything else it touches better.

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Along with the wings comes a whole platter of food to help cool you down—more fries than you'll need, or want, to eat. But there are also a few slices of garlic bread, celery, and blue cheese sauce. All this for $5.

Who said chicken wings were getting expensive?

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The other items I sampled were predictable, but still a tad better than expected. The chicken sandwich is the size of a plate, and looks about as boring as can be. But it's also remarkably juicy and well-seasoned. Why it doesn't come ladled with some of the wing sauce is beyond me. It's still more food than one person should ever try.

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The steak sandwich is as overloaded as the other offerings. It's soaked in a rich mushroom-based gravy that's probably from a jar. It's the least interesting thing on the menu, but still perfectly fine.

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There are no tables, just a line of stools that looks onto the parking lot. But the owners are fun, and the wings are a step above the kinds you'll find in every bar around the city. I wish they served better fries, but it's ridiculous to nitpick an establishment that serves stand fare like this in such an exciting way.

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