Heat Beneath Our Wings

CityBeat team of tasters judges the area’s best hot wings

Jun 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Whenever I say “hot wings,” I want to say it in a James Brown voice, something with swagger and, well, heat. Hot wings! Sorta like “Hot damn!” but you can say it in front of little kids.

Hot wings! Gimme some hot wings! Woo!

CityBeat’s spirits expert Michael Schiaparelli recently had a brilliant idea for the Hot Issue: hot wings! Woo! Say it loud, say it proud. Let’s get a band together!

The hot wing tasters included Michael and myself, representing the dining team; Steve Novotni, editor of CityBeat’s Annual Manual; Mike Maxwell, owner of Market Wines at Findlay Market (and our host for the event); and De Stewart, the Colonel, from Herbs & Spice at Findlay. We figured the Colonel was our ringer — nobody knows spice like he does.

We gathered wings from seven venues: Diner on Elm, a corner cafe downtown; Washington Platform, where there’s a “101 Ways to Eat Wings” event in August; Mokka in Newport, where wings are served only after 3 p.m. unless you beg real hard; Zola in MainStrasse, where a reliable source assured me “I’m not a wing man, but I’d order theirs again”; Wings Xtreme in Sharonville, a tiny specialty operation poised on the edge of expansion; The Rusty Bucket Corner Tavern in Rookwood Pavilion; and Buffalo Wild Wings, the go-to franchise for wingers.

Based on Internet research at Cluckbucket.com, we knew we were judging on three primary criteria: appearance, texture/tenderness and taste. Appearance is the easiest, of course, since it’s fairly straightforward to see if wings look appetizing (unless they’ve been for a ride in the saddlebags of Steve’s bike, in which case we cut them some serious slack).

The aim in the texture category is a crisp exterior with a tender interior. Breading affects this, since breading will absorb sauces, where “naked” wings won’t and their sauce tends to pool on the plate.

Taste is the most personal and subjective, so it’s the toughest criteria to judge. But since this chicken run was for the Hot Issue, we put a premium on heat.

So with ice cold beers in hand, we opened the carryout containers and started the assessment. Right off the bat, there were two really good-looking entries: Mokka, whose Thai wings were flecked with sesame seeds, and Rusty Bucket, which had the only non-Styrofoam container and whose plump wings were seasoned with herbs. They looked like they’d just been delivered tableside by a server instead of cruising down I-71 in a sedan. The Bucket wings smelled delicious, too.

The Diner on Elm’s basic, no frills entry consisted of five crisp, lightly battered wing segments, completely unadorned, with a plastic cup of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. What you see is what you get. I tried to pour on the Frank’s with a flourish, but there’s not a lot you can do if you’ve got the Shaker sect’s favorite wings.

We all agreed that they tasted exactly like chicken and hot sauce and could probably be duplicated fairly easily at home for a lot less than $4.99 for five pieces. Their advantage is that they could be shared with someone who hates hot food, since the sauce is optional. How’s that for a silver lining?

Mokka’s wings had two fans — The Colonel and me — who liked the sweet yet hot, complex, non-traditional Thai and citrus flavors. One taster dubbed them “the supermodel wings” since he felt they were pretty but didn’t have much depth. At 10 wings for $6, they were one of the best values and came with celery and dip (as did the wings from Zola, Rusty Bucket and Xtreme).

The most interesting garnish award went to Washington Platform, whose “Big Al’s” wings came with two giant broccoli florets. They were good, meaty wings with a vinegary hot sauce and heat that sneaks up on you, although The Colonel advised me “that’s what heat does.” He also chided me for trying to clear my palate with water, since the water just disperses the oils over more of the surface of your mouth.

Zola’s Garlic Hot Wings were kind of big-boned — I think that’s why one of the tasters dubbed them “Three Mile Island wings.” We generally liked their flavor, but while we could smell garlic seasoning we couldn’t taste it. At $5.95 for 10 wings, they were (by half a cent) the best bargain of the tasting.

For having the name most synonymous with wings in this town, Buffalo Wild Wings wasn’t a hit with our tasters. Comments on the texture included “rubbery,” and the habanero sauce (fourth hottest on BWW’s menu) was much too brutal for any of our tastes.

Two clear winners emerged from our test: Rusty Bucket and Wings Xtreme. Both had distinctive chicken flavor, complex sauces and pleasant, tolerable levels of heat. They stayed crisp under adverse conditions, and while they weren’t the least expensive wings in our test they were priced only pennies per wing above BWW and well below the Diner.

It was right around the end of our taste test when The Colonel declared, “This would not be a good time to get in a kissing contest. I just lost my lips!”

And that old myth about how eating hot things in the summer will cool you off? Eating hot wings made us sweat, my glasses steamed up and we looked pretty well wilted.

It was with much gratitude to Mike and Linnea at Market Wines that I bought a bottle of nice rose to take home and chill while I recovered!

Diner on Elm, 801 Elm St., Downtown, 513-421-0049
Washington Platform, 1000 Elm St., Downtown, 513-421-0110
Mokka, 500 Monmouth St., Newport, 859-581-3700
Zola, 626 Main St., Covington, 859-261-7510
The Rusty Bucket Corner Tavern, 2692 Madison Road, Hyde Park/Norwood, 513-841-2739
Buffalo Wild Wings, 2692 Madison Road, Hyde Park/Norwood, 513-351-9464
Wings Xtreme, 2241 Crowne Point Drive, Sharonville, 513-733-9464