This past Saturday I was invited to the Red Star Bar to taste and chat with some of the best wing and wing makers Brooklyn has to offer. The Best Wings in Brooklyn Competition featured 14 of the tastiest chicken wing recipes Kings county has to offer. I was lucky enough to sneak in an hour before the general public to get a “first dib” look, and taste, at the poultry positions for each team. Before I get too deep into this post, reveal the competitors and my favorites, I think I should qualify my background in wing tasting. To be clear, I was not a judge, nor was I asked to be one. But, I did taste, so I will share my picks with you. First, some history.
I went to college in Albany New York. Not quite Buffalo but high enough up there to know a good wing when it hits my tongue. BTW-If you are in Albany and you are looking for the best wing ever, head to Ralph’s on Madison Ave. Of course it would have to be 1994 for you to actually visit since Ralph’s doesn’t exist anymore. Before I digress just know the criteria that makes Ralph’s the best of the best for me. First, they always used big, meaty wings. Second, hot and spicy with one level of hotness. The sauce was standard. A bit of Frank’s Red Hot and some butter was all they used. Simple and clean. There was not breading on the wings. There was just crazy hot oil that crisped up the skin so your teeth felt the crunch as your lips and tongue worked the meat off the bone. Third, cheap. This doesn’t apply to the Brooklyn competition but, 5 bucks would get me 30 wings and a pitcher of Kilian’s. Ahh, the days. OK. Now I digress.
Since I am not a true Rochester/Buffalo resident I also have a particular penchant for a non-traditional wing. A good BBQ wing, a nice jerk spice wing or a South Asian glazed wing all have a place in my heart, and stomach, to be a winner. Dinosaur BBQ for example kicks some serious ass. So, as I started to peruse the contestants my eyes, ears and taste buds were open to “new” style wings as much as they were ready for a good traditional hot wing.
Let’s get to the contestants. We’ll start out strong, drop in the middle of the pack and then close with my favorite traditional entry.
1. Super Wings
I loved this crew. They were chatty, smiley and super happy. Their wings…totally broke the mold. In the restaurant the selection is ridiculous. You can choose from Ginger Buff, Trini Tamarind, Bajan Merry Mango, Island BBQ, Chili Cilantro, Spice Island Rub and Lava. They served Ginger Buff with Lava Sauce. I screamed, cried and then hit seconds. Nothing like a traditional wing BUT they did it right. They started with a meaty wing that was not too big. This was smart because there was so much flavor that too much meat would actually kill the flavor profile. I know, I never use big cooking words like that, but here it was necessary. The lava sauce on top was a nice break from the blue cheese and complimented the Ginger spice wonderfully. So, turns out I was not the only person who though this way. They took first prize. Nice work ladies. I’ll be by the restaurant really soon for more.
2. Jake’s Bar-B-Que
Wings from a BBQ joint always peeks my interest. Off the bat they were a talkative team. I love that. Lots to say about the wings, the competition and their restaurant. Their entry was definitely of the BBQ realm. A saucy entry that had a spicy yet sweet BBQ sauce on it. I loved it but yearned for that taste on some pork. A rib, brisket some pulled shoulder, anything, would have held up to that sauce better than a wing. Let me be clear, I loved the taste. It was the wing that fell a little short. I will say, they did something no other team did. They served the whole wing intact. Still connected at the joint I needed to change my eating approach to devour this morsel and I enjoyed the challenge. I am dying to head down to Carroll Garden’s and try some of their pork creations. I am sure they will not disappoint.
I don’t have one note, memory or story to tell about this wing. I guess that says it all. So, let’s move on. Ohh, wait…they were best dressed. Doning Valentine’s Day red chef coats they were the cleanest and most professional looking of all the teams.
They were from Flatbush Ave. and entered with a jerk wing.. No blue cheese dip, just straight up Jerk. This Trini team kept it real West Indian style. A sucker for jerk chicken I reveled in their wings and reminisced about Mr. Biggs roadside jerk spot in Negril. An absolute must every time I am in the birthplace of Bob Nesta. A good non-traditional wing but a little small and dry when I got to the meat. Jerk holds up much better on a leg or thigh so I suspect a trip to Flatbush is in order.
5. Spike Hill
Spike Hill, the Bedford Ave. staple, entered their well known recipe. Beyond their chipper server and cool chef the wings were OK. Standard spice using some Frank’s or Frank’s like sauce on a medium but meaty, sized wing. Competitions are tough. You are not in your home kitchen, the wings are not cooked to order from scratch and you have to make modifications on the fly. Having been to Spike Hill and having the wings, I think the better wing resides in the bar not at the competition.
6. Rocky Sullivan’s
Yes, the old staple pub from Manhattan, now out in Redhook, showed up with a prime location just opposite the upstairs bar. Their wings were traditional, on the small side and fairly run of the mill. What Rocky’s does best is serve beer. After partaking in what they do best for about…ohhh, let’s say 5 rounds…these wings would be winners. You couldn’t stop me from eating them 30 or 40 at a clip. Unfortunately, I was only a half a pint in when I made it to their table. I did get a hard line on their pizza prep though. Irish guys with a wood burning stove? We got to check that out.
7. Yellow Hook Grill
Read number 6 above. Subtract that they are good at serving beer. Scroll down.
8. Red Star
Red Star had the home court advantage. Despite that and the fact that I have bellied up to the Red Star bar on many a wing night, I still felt their wings were fairly middle of the road. Again, all the wings in the competition were top notch but when you compare the best of the best you have to draw a line. I have to call it how I taste it. The ironic thing about that statement is the next time I eat wings it will be these because I live a block away. So in that sense Red Star’s wings win!
9. Bean Post Pub
Two steps to my left, over to this table, was the biggest surprise of the day. Anthony, from Bean Post Pub, and his delicious wings won a place in my heart. First off, Anthony and his co-wing slinger (I forgot her name. Sorry guys.) had a bunch of different wings for sampling including “killer”. I stuck with the original in fear that I would burn out my taste buds and not be able to properly review the rest of the entries. The wings were nice and meaty and very simply prepared. They were classically red and carryed the expected traditional heat that comes along with the hue. So, at this point I was thinking that it was a nice but fairly basic wing. I took a bite. My opinion mostly stayed the same. As my tongue sucked back the meat after my teeth dislodged a nice chunk, I tasted the red hot sauce, the spice and the chicken. All very standard and traditional. Exceptionally well done mind you but there was no distinction. And, as I discussed, I was looking for distinction. Then I pushed the meat to the back of my mouth and the whole world changed. As my molars grinded on the succulent meat, crispy skin and spicy sauce a new flavor entered the mix. My back buds instantly picked up a heat cooling sweet flavor. My eyes popped and Anthony’s mouth started to turn up in the corners. His big smile and my, now nodding noggin were reacting to the same thing. Anthony mixes a secret into his wing sauce. A sweet BBQ sauce that camouflages itself behind the redness of the other ingredients. Like a good sniper you can’t see, smell or taste it until it is too late. Just as I sent that bite down my throat BOOM, that sniper pops out and nails me straight in the taste bud. Needless to say at this point, that made the wing spectacular and unique. A small nuance like that is what separates good food from great. Trick me. Make me think. Make me reconsider what I have already, so ignorantly, taken for granted. Thanks to Anthony and Bean Post Pub I have a new tasty story to tell and a new favorite Bay Ridge bar to visit. For a quick minute I was transported back to 1994 and my first Ralph’s hot wing of the semester.
10. Atomic Wings
Nearing the end of the competitors I reached the Atomic Wings table. Have you tasted Atomic Wings in Manhattan? Well…they tasted like that.
11. Wing Wagon
They had 3 types of wings for me to try; mild, medium and honey BBQ. The traditional two were good but lacked meat. The Honey BBQ on the other hand was quite tasty. The first Honey BBQ wing I had all day. It hit the spot on the flavor scale I was lacking. Despite it’s flavor punch I felt the wing lacked some size and meat. More sauce than meat makes me a sad kid.
12. The Kettle Black
Another team from Bay Ridge had a delicious looking dry rub wing. Unfortunately, that is where it ended. I skipped the blue cheese on their recommendation and bit into a large but dry wing that lacked punch in its flavor. I hate to be so blunt, remember all the competitors had top notch wings. Some were just better than others.
They were a late arrival to the setup. I am not sure what exactly was going on here. There was some red hot, some breading and some temperature issues (a ‘lil cold). They were working hard though. And they had a mess of wings with them. Three full trays it looked like.
Last, but not least, and purposely saved for my final taste was SarahJames. I saved them until last because they were the only table that made the wings to order. Points for that. I liked the presentation but beyond that a fairly standard wing. I will say it aired on the beefy side and it was a clean wing. It was not over sauced and was not too hot. If I were to name this wing I would call it “The Sophisticate”. I see these wings being served at some “downtown” themed uptown gala. One in which the young urban professionals want to feel more like LES hipsters but couldn’t bare to trade in their J Crew and Ann Taylor for the grittier, but just as trendy and tired, Diesel skinny jean or retro, neon Camp Beverly Hills sweatshirt with thick rimmed glasses.
After about 2 hours I had made my way around all the tables, once for pics and a second time for eats. With a belly full of 28 wings and a memory card full of 280 photos, I gulped down the rest of my pint and slipped through the now shoulder to shoulder crowd and out the front door.
As food competitions go, The Best Wings In Brooklyn Competition had a good showing. Two hours in and there was still a line outside Red Star. Considering the G train was broken and the temp was hanging around a windy 25 degrees, I’d say Brooklyn takes their wings pretty seriously.
As I meandered home on my chicken wing high I felt a nap coming on. This daydream was interrupted by the sharp reality that in 3 hours I needed to be at Aimee and Eric’s for Chilifest 2010. Is an eaters job never done?