WingFest, part I

March 12, 2007, midnight | By Alex Hyder, Simon Kanter | 17 years, 3 months ago

They're not just appetizers any more

Wings: the final frontier. After so aptly and—ahem—selflessly conquering the realm of burgers on our heroic quest to find, for the edification of our readers, that which can only be described as the acme of beefiness, we could only contemplate what our next quest would be. Finally, on a dark, stormy night, otherwise known as last Tuesday, the answer came to us in the pepsin-induced haze of a dream: let there be wings!

Although the chicken itself is a synonym for cowardice, chicken wings, be they grilled, fried or slathered in sauce, can only be thought of as bold, powerful and not for the faint of heart. These mouth-watering fowl appendages are perhaps the ultimate food for chilling out, requiring nothing but a hearty appetite and plenty of ice water to constitute a meal. Nothing, we imagined, could be a better food to review and compare than chicken wings.

The idea took root in our minds, pulsing and throbbing, growing ever deeper and more irrepressible until the impulse to consume otherworldly quantities of poultry could be ignored no longer. We took a vow to find the greatest wings along the Beltway. After subsisting on naught but air and raw Tabasco sauce for two days, our loyal companion, Chips Business Staff's own Terence McPherson, showed up with his trusty steed—a slowly decomposing '92 Accord with a broken speedometer—prepared to whisk us off to the epic sojourn that shall heretofore be forever known as…


Hard Times Café
As the first stop on our extensive list, we rolled up on the Hard Times Café with high expectations. At first glance, we noticed the stark contrast between the western style of the edifice and the British style of the pedestrian we almost ran over while parking. In our defense, the hapless bloke actually invited us to run him over as he stood squarely in our parking space. We figured that if these wings caused enough brain damage to make a man ask to be run over, we were in for a treat.

Upon entering the restaurant, we were met not by the stomp of cowboy boots and ring of tobacco quid against a brass spittoon, but by a stultifying wave of white-collar eminence, followed soon after by the suffocating smell of successful 20 to 30-somethings. An impromptu game of "Count the Blackberries" was abruptly cut off after we ran out of integers. But as dish after dish passed by, it soon became obvious why the yuppie crowd hangs out here.

We had no complaints about the nice furniture, relaxed atmosphere and breezy outdoor seating (it was a nice day) that Hard Times offered. The jukebox and saloon paraphernalia festooned upon the walls reassured us that we were, indeed, about to receive a Texas-sized dose of flavor. The multiple bottles of hot sauce arrayed upon every table only heightened our anticipation.

As the peppy waiter brought our wings to the table, we prepared mentally and physically for the gastrointestinal onslaught that would surely come from these wings. We decided to order two types , the Original Texas Style and Chili Lime Style, grabbing a diverse sampling to better judge the restaurant's overall "wingage quotient."

Apparently, at the Hard Times Café "Texas Style" is slang for "melt-your-brain excellent." These wings not only had the heat one would expect from high-quality comestibles, but also features a unique blend of spices one doesn't normally expect on chicken wings. All of the elements of traditional hot wings were there, but Hard Times seems to have gone the extra mile in coming up with original ideas.

This surprise was decidedly not unpleasant, as the spices really brought out the flavor of the chicken and the sauce had no problem tickling our tonsils. The Chili Lime wings were equally superb, with the heat adding to, not crowding out, the tangy, zesty lime flavor. Both dishes were the perfect consistency; the wings were neither too crunchy nor too chewy and simply melted in the mouth. Both were offered at reasonable prices and came out steaming, laid out on a plate alongside the de rigueur veggies and dip. Even today, the very thought of either of these unique wings makes the WingFest team salivate.

On our way out, we couldn't help but notice that the number of hot sauce bottles on our table had diminished substantially. In a completely unrelated note, we had the good fortune to discover several bottles of hot sauce in our pants pockets several days later.

The verdict: Whether you're out to hear some Willie Nelson, have a power lunch or just munch on some absolutely splendid wings, times are good at the Hard Times Café.

NY Manhattan Deli, Silver Spring
The Manhattan Deli is an anomaly among local gastronomers. Underneath its trademark blue roof lies one of the smallest dining establishments known to mankind, with dimensions approximating the average hall closet. Yet the nebula of flavor offered therein is large enough to have its own gravitational field, as evidenced by the hordes of Blair students often seen in its orbit.

Well, maybe "hordes" is not the right word, as it would be impossible to fit more than a dozen into the Deli's cramped confines. Nonetheless, the Manhattan Deli is renowned for serving some of the finest burgers, sandwiches and hot dogs in the DC area — and at student-friendly prices, to boot.

But what about wings? We sought to evaluate the Manhattan's prowess in this area, placing an order for a plate of chicken wings. Now, the first rule of dining at the Manhattan is that food takes forever to arrive, as was the case with our visit. Usually, the food is more than worth the wait. Sadly, the same could not be said of the wings.

On first bite, it seemed we had solved the mystery of the Deli: the extra modicum of flavor imparted upon most of its other offerings is clearly lost from its wings. Although the wings were fresh and lovingly prepared, they were not good. They were over-fried, which left the skin far too crunchy and the meat far too dry.

Furthermore, the wings were bland, lacking the spice, kick and flavor we had come to expect. Needless to say, our experience was not enhanced by the long wait time, the deli's small interior, cut-rate furniture and sheer and utter lack of interior décor, save a gyros poster and a calendar. We said our goodbyes to Carlos, the Manhattan's friendly cashier, chef, waiter and proprietor, and made our way across University Boulevard to hit our next destination.

The verdict: Come for the burgers. Come for the sandwiches. Come for the chips, fries, gyros, or whatever else you crave. But please, whatever you do, don't come for the wings.

Jerry's, Silver Spring
Many Blazers already know that the advantages to eating at Jerry's are threefold: it is fast, close and cheap. The same can be said of their wings: they were ordered, served within minutes and given in a 12-piece basket for under $7.00. Sadly, the devil lies in the details. The powers of darkness have conspired to give Jerry's wings their own triple entente of bad wing karma: the wings are small, microwaved and about as appetizing as a nice, cool glass of brake fluid.

Almost nothing was right about these wings. They were small, barely outclassing the fingers with which they were meant to be consumed. They were dry, with nary a drop of anything that could be described as "wing sauce" within sight. They were prepared with a build quality reminiscent of foreign subcompacts and cut-rate electronics, and were made with such obvious haste that one wonders whether the wings experienced relativistic effects during the preparation stage. This would explain both the puny size and the tepid temperature.

As for flavor? Don't even ask. To get an idea of both the taste and texture of these oh-so-wonderful wings, find the nearest tire and chew on it for a while.

As we were in a hurry, we forewent eating in the restaurants familiar confines, which featured green carpeting straight out of decades past and video game and pinball machines of a similar vintage, and ate the wings, which came in a convenient travel container, on the hood of McPherson's car, which had managed to survive our previous misadventures into the District of Columbia. Needless to say, we went off the charts when assigning an atmosphere rating here, issuing a full 10.5 out of 10.

The verdict: For the absolute murder of a batch of chicken wings: guilty as charged.

Austin Grill, Silver Spring
Amongst the bright, refulgent storefronts of downtown Silver Spring, one strikes the passerby as unusually friendly. "Hello Stranger" it beckons, while an adjacent neon marquee entices the prospective customer with special deals and the promise of nightly live music. This is none other than the façade of the Austin Grill, one of Downtown Silver Spring's hottest spots for chicken wings and Texas-sized flavor.

The interior honestly seemed straight out of Texas. The dining area is festooned with all manner of Western accouterment, including a roadside marquee, longhorns, countless guitars and automobile parts. The tables are laid out with a bar area in the center, boasting a sign bearing such proverbial rules as "If your wife calls and you're 'not here,' you must tell her yourself." As the day's live music had yet to begin, our meal was accompanied by a mellow fusion of rock, country and folk coming from overhead that lent a laid-back atmosphere to the place.

The service was swift and we were seated immediately. After being presented with chips, a glance at the menu offered us no choice but to order a cup of chile con queso to dip them in. It was a wise decision; the queso was appetizing and truly delectable, offering a smooth blend of flavors that soothed our palates from the trauma of our previous two stops. In retrospect, nothing could have prepared us better for the amazing wings that were about to follow.

Although the Austin Wings we ordered were not "buffalo wings" in the traditional sense, they were still thoroughly delicious. They were nothing short of marvelous, having been grilled and marinated with a dry rub that seemed to lock the flavor in. Although they were not scorching, they did possess a kick of a different sort, imbuing the mouth with a rich, invigorating spice sensation that meant that these wings were eaten in a matter of minutes. What's more, they were served with an amazing dipping sauce that lent a cool, sweet quality to the wings, offering the perfect compliment to the spices and the natural taste of the chicken.

The barbeque wings were equally delicious, served with a sweet, tangy, sticky homemade barbeque sauce that made them some of the finest barbeque wings around. The folks in the kitchen clearly have their act together when it comes to locking in flavor, quality, and freshness in their wings.

In terms of texture, the wings were yin and yang, with the substantial, meaty texture of the grilled, dry rub Austin Wings contrasting perfectly with the sticky, somewhat chewy texture imparted by the sauce on their barbeque counterparts. Both were served with all the fixings one expects with wings, and while eight dollars per order is not the cheapest rate for chicken wings, the size and quality of the offerings here make it money well spent.

The Verdict: The Austin Grill brings the laid-back vibe of the Texas plains to the hustle and bustle of Silver Spring, along with some really, really, really good wings. Did we mention they were really good?

BWB, Wheaton
BWB has just about the most straightforward name a wings place can have; its name is short for Buffalo Wings and Beer, its two specialties. Despite this upfront approach, we must admit that we were a bit intimidated just walking in to this. For starters, it's underground, both literally and, it would seem, figuratively.

We were greeted not the familiar tables and chairs one would expect in a restaurant, but by a steep, dimly-lit stairwell, descending into an equally shadowy dining room merging with a bar area, full of servers that looked almost as sketchy as the clientele.

In the back sat a shifty-eyed man silently counting piles of money. In one corner stood a jukebox that, for want of requests, defaulted to loud reggaeton for the duration of our stay, as though to drown out potentially incriminating discussions. Across the room were electronic dartboards, next to the entrance to a large billiards room. Something about the atmosphere here put us on edge; to put it bluntly, we would not be surprised if BWB really stands for "Better Watch your Back."

We were promptly seated and presented with menus boasting a full range of lunch and dinner fare. Whether seeking salads or steaks, salmon or subs, nearly anyone could find something to tickle their fancy here. But with a name like "Buffalo Wings and Beer," it is hardly a surprise that the wing section had the widest variety of offerings.

In addition to the traditional "hot," BWB's menu offers such outside-the-box varieties as Old Bay, Cajun, honey mustard and barbeque wings. But what's more impressive is the fact that their hot wings are subdivided into no less than six degrees of hotness. Each is named for a progressively more macho chicken, starting at chick (mild) and progressing to hen, rooster, cock of the walk and super cock, culminating in Insane Cock, which the menu claims may cause nerve damage. As though to underscore the fact that this place takes their wings seriously, wings are not sold by the wing or by the plate, but by the pound.

We ordered one of their combos, receiving a heaping plate of wings and an order of fries for the price of the wings alone. Not that the wings were expensive to start with – at $11 for a full two pounds of wings, nearly any wing devotee can make regular pilgrimages to the BWB. Here, we found that the traditional buffalo wing is alive and kicking.

Although the "rooster" wings were only halfway up BWB's scale of pain, they brought sweat to our brows in seconds flat with the spicy, salty zest that only true buffalo wings can provide. Even though it took a while for the wings to arrive, they were fresh and steaming when they reached our table. The consistency of the sauce was ideal, as was the texture of the chicken, which peeled off the bone and onto our craving palates with no effort. The fries, too, were excellent and served fresh with an even golden coating.

In a fortuitous turn of events, our waiter, out of the blue, explained the mystery of insane cock just as we had begun to ponder it ourselves. BWB's six degrees of hot sauces, he explained, are all dilutions of one master sauce, termed "coffin." This secret ingredient is so potent and volatile, he cautioned, that bottles of it must be kept refrigerated in the kitchen, lest they explode.

Insane cock, it turns out, is the crack of hot sauce; it is nearly pure coffin base, with other ingredients mixed in only for flavor. And if you think the sauce sounds intense, wait until you've tasted it. The waiter, noting our amazement upon the mere mention of exploding sauce, brought out a dish of it.

We foolishly approached the insane hot sauce as we would nearly any other sauce, each taking a generous dollop on a French fry to taste. Big mistake. While our faces contorted and our eyes reddened, we noticed our waiter sitting behind the bar, sharing a sadistic chuckle with his co-workers. As if this place wasn't shady enough…

After mopping the sweat from our brows and tears from our eyes, we decided to call it a day. Having had enough of hot sauce to last a lifetime, we said our goodbyes to gastrointestinal health, popped some antacids and made our way home.

The verdict: Great wings at a great price…if you don't bring cops.

Atmosphere Taste Quality Value
Hard Times Café 8 8 9.5 7 32.5
Manhattan Deli 4.36 6.5 5 8 23.86
Jerry's Subs and Pizza 10.5 4 2 925.5
Austin Grill 8.5 9 9 7.5 34
Buffalo Wings & Beer (BWB) 7 10 8 10 35

Guide to table: Ratings are on a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 is the best. "Taste" refers to the wing's taste, texture and effect on the palate. "Quality" refers to the manner in which the wings are served, including freshness and consistency. "Value" refers to perceived value for price paid, and is a measure of whether or not the wings worth the cost, taking into account factors of wing size, order size, and price. "Atmosphere" refers to other elements, such as the quality of service, wait times, cleanliness and the appearance of the restaurant. Values in table are averages of the authors' individual ratings.

Alex Hyder. Hyder, as he is affectionately (or, as is often the case, not-so affectionately) known, is thoroughly enthused about his position on SCO. A junior in Blair's Magnet Program, he is too lazy to write a more extensive bio but nonetheless finds the energy to write … More »

Simon Kanter. Simon "The Food Guy" Kanter is the silliest person you will ever meet. Though his true joy in life is posting recipes, Simon finds time to spend patting himself on the back for his witty remarks, breeding Trogdors, stealing markers, staplers and other convenient appliances, … More »

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