Twenty Two Wings
Politicians lie. They distort. They finesse the truth. That’s the job. They do bad things, so we don’t have to. Hopefully they do it for the public good. You’re an adult. Somewhere in your heart of hearts you know that, right? You might not want it to be true. You might prefer to hold on to some kind of myth or legend instead.
George Washington and the cherry tree? Never happened. What did happen was a surprise attack on Christmas morning. And yes, we may all be better off as a result of it. But maybe we can drop a bit of the pretense that our national heroes are saints.
Man, this food blog got really dark all of a sudden.
This past Saturday, I took place in a marathon of sorts. No, it wasn’t a running marathon. It was an eating one. I had agreed to be a judge for the Schenectady Wing Walk. Perhaps if I had a fitbit, I would know how many steps I walked, but I was pretty much walking for four hours, going from restaurant to restaurant, sampling chicken wings.
There were a few other judges, but I went around with comedian Chris Lamberth. He was a drumette guy. Over the course of the day, I may have changed his mind. If not, at least I exposed him to the deliciousness of the flat. Albany Jane was a good sport and accompanied us for most of the day, until she just couldn’t take it anymore.
Twenty-two wings is a lot of wings. And it’s a brutal contest, perhaps for obvious reasons, but there were some highlights.
First, we should talk briefly about what makes a great chicken wing. I argue that takes three things: skin, meat, and sauce.
Wings are full of fat. And chomping down on flabby fat isn’t fun. It’s not delicious. It’s just kind of slimy and unappetizing. So that fat has to be rendered. It can be well rendered in a fryer which will result with a crispy skinned morsel, or you can render the fat out through slow cooking. Each has its own challenges, and I was pleasantly surprised to see one braised wing that was wow worthy.
If you cook a wing too long, the meat inside can get tough. Cook it too quickly, and that fat may not render from the skin. It’s all about balance. But that meat has to be tender. Nobody wants to gnaw on a basket of wings.
For me, chicken wings are a sauce delivery device. Classic buffalo sauce is one of my favorites. Frank’s Red Hot combined with butter and balanced with vinegar just puts me over the moon. It even got to the point where for a while I would walk around with a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot wherever I went.
On the Schenectady Wing Walk, there wasn’t a single traditional buffalo wing. It’s funny, because everyone wanted to try and do something different to differentiate themselves from the pack. However, what would have really stood out, was a kickass traditional buffalo wing.
Instead, the pack went in the direction of sweet and spicy. Nine out of the twenty-two were some combination of sweet and hot. That included the best all around wing from 20 North Broadway. If anything comes out of this contest, I hope that it’s that this small but mighty Schenectady institution needs to be on everyone’s radar. 20 North has either won or tied this contest for five years running.
And for good reason, its wings are excellent. Even in this contest when making wings for 1500 people over the span of four hours, the skin had some crispness, the meat was tender, and the sauce was full of flavor.
Over the course of the day, we got very few wings that actually had crispy skin and tender meat.
The one big exception was at Manhattan Exchange. While I felt that I might have lucked out because I got a wing hot out of the fryer, the other judging team had a similar experience. This place seemed to be doing it right, cooking up the wings in small batches every couple of minutes. Bravo to them.
But I also learned that a wing did not have to be made with a crispy skin to be delicious. Many thanks to Taj Mahal for expanding my horizons. This Indian restaurant made the Taj Mahal Spicy Wing, which was braised in Indian spices, and remarkably tender. The skin was present, but the fat was fully rendered, so the braised skin was simply a tender membrane separating the meat from the sauce. This was totally delicious, and even though it was close to the end of the tour, I gladly ate a second one.
Judges were also asked to rate the wing with the best presentation or appearance. That was a challenge, because it’s hard to dress up a wing. Still, there were a couple of places that went an extra step. One of those places was Marotta’s which added a little sprinkle of added seasoning to the top of each Fra Diavolo wing. That was enough to get them the top spot, well, that and also producing a really flavorful wing with the pop of hot peppers.
Based on my notes, Marotta’s was also a contender for the best sauce/rub category. But in the end that went to Café NOLA with it’s cajun seasoned wings. The judges agreed that this was a serious spice rub, worthy of note.
The one thing that I found absolutely perplexing was the popularity of the Canvas, Corks & Forks boneless wing with smoked gouda & honey pecan BBQ sauce. If it’s unclear from the description, that’s a cheese sauce. Fried chicken, slathered in sweetened melted cheese? I find that entirely unappealing.
All in all, this was a fun day. Mostly, it was a treat to walk around with old friends and new ones, and talk about all the wings we were trying. A few were standouts. Most were just okay. But I enjoyed seeing how each place tried to put its own spin on the form.
My hope for next year is that more places will fry up their wings in smaller batches. And maybe we’ll see at least one place try to separate from the pack by offering a straight up, classic, buffalo wing.
In the meantime, get to 20 North. Pronto. Or at the very least, make sure it’s on your radar.