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Will Walk for Wings

October 9, 2018

Maybe it’s me, but this hasn’t really felt like a holiday weekend. Believe it or not, but I was actually working. And that work didn’t even involve eating food. Occasionally, even I have to do paperwork. For some reason, I think it’s a requirement of every job.

But the best parts of my job are the ones that do involve eating food. Like on Saturday, when I was the lead judge for the Schenectady Wing Walk.

What made me the lead judge? Good question. Yelp was one of the sponsors of the event, and as the local Yelp Community Ambassador (that’s a real job, dammit) I was responsible for choosing the judging panel from the members of the Yelp Elite Squad.

We had a crack team of Holly Y, Corie Y (no relation), and Michael C.

All told, we had to walk around Downtown Schenectady and taste 23 different wings. We were looking for creativity, presentation, texture, and flavor. The last one was really defined by the sauce and rub.

This wasn’t my first Schenectady Wing Walk, but it was my favorite to date. There were some big surprises, and perhaps some bigger upsets. Because wings I expected to love fell flat, and wings I expected to hate were remarkably delightful. And the wing that won may have been the most surprising of them all.

Holly Y noted that there were some place that decided to “bring it”, where other places just kind of played it safe. The Horses Lounge isn’t in Downtown Schenectady, but they partnered up with Clinton Street Pub and brought something entirely unexpected.

The Whole “Sha” Bang wing will also be known as The Wonkie Wonka Wing. So, these mad men take a fried chicken wing, coat it in caramel, and roll it in a mixture of potato chips, peanuts, pretzels, and chocolate chips. Then it’s finished off with sea salt and spices. But as strange as it sounds, the whole thing just works. It’s a daring display of contrasts, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Now, would I want to sit down and eat a whole plate of them? I don’t know. But in the world of creative wings, these took the prize. It wasn’t even close.

Well, it might have been close if the Mad Jack wings weren’t so divisive. They also brought it. Because on paper, their hot-chocolate porter-beer-infused wing with marshmallow dipping sauce sounded like a shoe-in for most creative. And creative it was. For me, this wing fulfilled the promise of the peanut butter and jelly wing. But instead of a sweet and salty combination, this was sweet contrasting with bitter complexity. The wings were coated in a dark chocolate glaze, and underneath was a perfectly crispy wing. The marshmallow sauce helped to keep everything in balance, and I was a big fan.

That said, a lot of people just couldn’t get their heads around a chocolate wing. Maybe this is why we don’t have more mole on our Mexican menus up here. But so it goes. I tip my hat to Mad Jack for bringing these to the table.

Texture is important in a wing, and at this event there were certainly texture highs and lows. Bomber’s cleverly parked a truck outside its restaurant, and was able to shorten the distance between fryer and wing eater by a significant distance. That was very smart. Still, they seemed to be rushing the process, producing a blonder wing. It was close.

Slidin’ Dirty set up their table just outside the kitchen door. And all the judges agreed that this wing was at the best intersection of crisp and tender we had on the tour. The Horses Lounge wings were also crispy, but it was hard to identify if that was from the wing itself or the potato chip.

This was a pretty significant upset, because 20 North Broadway are legitimately my favorite wings in the Capital Region. But for the wing walk, they fell down hard. They went with a sweeter sauce, and the texture was just limp.

The Memphis King also struggled with texture. They were far far away from their kitchen, but partnered with The Dilly Bean on Jay Street to vend some double smoked wings on the Wing Walk. What these wings lacked in texture, they made up for in presentation, because these wings were beautiful inside and out.

Let’s talk about someone who brought it.

Serving smoked chicken wings to two thousand people is badass, largely because people are skittish and easily freaked out. Especially where chicken is concerned. Hopefully since you read this blog, you know that the hallmark of well-smoked food is that it has a pink smoke ring permeating the meat. However, when people see pink inside chicken, they think it’s raw.

I can’t even imagine how many time The Memphis King had to explain this to people, and I shudder to think how many people nodded, smiled, and threw this beautiful wing in the trash. But it was beautiful, with a penetrating smoke ring, and each wing got a drizzle of extra special sauce on top.

Personally, I thought Johnny’s extra meaty wing was also pretty handsome, with a spoonful of grated cheese and chopped herbs sprinkled over each plate, but the other judges disagreed.

Now while the smokey barbecue sauce worked well with the smoked wing, the sauce that won all the judges’ hearts came from Pinhead Susan’s. It was a sweet and spicy bacon jam. And it fully delivered on that promise. Suspending bacon with its smoke and crunch in a sweet and clinging sauce that also has a smoldering heat is absolutely the best way to bring bacon into a wing contest. The balance here was fantastic, and the sauce was fully integrated into the wing.

Centre Street Pub also tried to use bacon in their dry rubbed wing by putting it into a cheddar sauce which was served on the side. The sauce on its own was a hit. And if this had been a soup stroll, and that cheddar soup came with a dry rubbed wing for garnish, we might be having a different conversation. But it felt definitely more like soup than sauce.

There were some great sauces in the contest too. I was a big fan of Katie O’Byrne’s “Holy Trinity” which combined their medium buffalo, barbecue, and garlic parm sauces into a harmonious whole. The other judges really were impressed with Mexican Radio’s “Spicy Peach” which they felt delivered on that promise. I wasn’t feeling it. When it came to fruit and heat, I actually preferred the Isopo’s pineapple habanero sauce.

But Isopo’s was one of the shops that brought nuggets to a wing fest. There were a surprising number of these. I recused myself from the voting on this for ideological grounds, but the other judges liked the nuggets paired with pieces of waffles and syrup at Canvas, Corks & Forks.

So who won the big prize?

With all the classic and modern bars, taverns, and international restaurants of Downtown Schenectady, it was executive chef Frank Tardio from Aperitivo Bistro who beat them all. He brought it. Specifically, he brought Italian ingredients and cooking techniques, and applied them to the humble chicken wing.

However, he wasn’t trying to redefine wings as an Italian dish. Rather, he reinterpreted the buffalo wing with an Italian flair. This means the heat came from Calabrian chilis, which were simmered in a sweet and sour agrodolce. And the blue cheese it was served in was Gorgonzola, which is also Italian. There was garlic in there, along with sour cream and a bit of mayonnaise. The whole thing was delicious.

Amazingly, this was the only blue cheese we were served with a wing all day. Which isn’t to say that the blue cheese made it, but it certainly helped to create this top prize wing. Because it wasn’t just the judges who loved it. This was the people’s choice winner as well.

Which means the people got it right! In fact, the people agreed with the judges all the way down the ballot, awarding Pinhead Susan’s sweet and spicy bacon jam wings as number two, and The Horses Lounge The Wonkie Wonka Wing as number three. Congrats to them all!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. B. Maggi permalink
    October 9, 2018 12:33 pm

    Sounds like a fun time was had by all. I was in Schenectady for a different event, and some people I were with asked what I thought was a logical question: “Why spend hours in line for a couple of free wings.” So, I must ask you: how long did it take overall to get to all of the places?

    • October 9, 2018 1:58 pm

      Good question. As judges we were able to skip all the lines, and we were able to complete the task in just under four hours. But I saw other groups of friends who had mapped out the day, complete with beer stops, and they expected to be able to eat all the wings by the event’s close at 5p.

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