Wingin it in Aspen: In search of the elusive heat of Buffalo wings
December 2, 2008
ASPEN When people begin reminiscing about their college days the keggers, the inspiring professors, the all-night bull sessions my mind inevitably drifts to chicken wings. College was not the best time for me, and I reflect sometimes that, had it not been for Cluck-U Chicken, I might not have survived it. But whenever there was a class that I failed to attend all semester, a weekend spent wondering how so many could get such enjoyment out of a football game and a six-pack, another unrequited crush on a classmate, there was a way to drown my sorrows: in a pile of wings, a side of potato salad and a massive Coke, all for about five bucks. The very first Cluck-U opened in New Brunswick, N.J., home of one of my many alma maters, Rutgers University, and it was my salvation. Apparently, Im not alone; in the ensuing 23 years, over 35 more stores have opened.Cluck-U has since added all kinds of new-fangled menu items: chicken wraps, clucker spuds, numerous sauce options for the wings (which they call wingers). But in the early days, it was only wings, offered in four degrees of heat: mild, atomic, nuclear and thermo-nuclear. This last option was largely theoretical. They did, indeed, have the thermo-nuclears, but they wouldnt serve up an order; theyd give interested diners one free wing, then watch as people choked and gasped and downed their beverage, before retreating down the spiciness chain to place their full order. Amazingly, Cluck-U has since added an even hotter option 911 and some outlets require signing a waiver before they will serve it.Thats a spicy-a wing-ah.I always assumed that was the point of wings: brutal spiciness. You sell small chicken pieces, of mysterious origin, at absurdly low prices. But you bathe them in a vinegar/cayenne pepper sauce (and just one other ingredient, butter) calculated to burn the tongue sufficiently so that the only recourse is to order beer after beer to soothe the taste buds. Its a time-honored tradition which, in the widely accepted version of the story, began in 1964 at Buffalo, NYs Anchor Bar that has kept many pubs afloat, and the appetite of many single young men sated. In the most significant tastes great together moment since the original you got peanut-butter-on-my-chocolate incident, some genius whose name has been lost to history added blue cheese to the mix. (Blue cheese, not ranch!) In a less momentous step forward, some health nut theres no evidence that it was my wife, though it is consistent with her M.O. snuck in some carrot and celery sticks.In a bar-heavy town like Aspen, wings are possibly second only to burgers in menu ubiquity. There are over a dozen places to get wings in Aspen proper alone. In a way, wings may be even more of a given than burgers: at least two places serve wings even though they dont list them on the menu. As it turns out, those surreptitious wings at Little Annies and Toppers are near the top of the must-taste list.But Aspen seems to have lost sight of the raison dtre of the Buffalo wing: to induce a tongue-burn that can only be extinguished with multiple beverages. Wyatt, the newest member of The Aspen Times staff, who arrives with an impressive appreciation for and knowledge of wings, says the mere saltiness of wings does the trick. (Duly noted, Wyatt.) With various tasting partners in tow, I took wing from bar to bar in search of Aspens best drummettes (or drummies, the part that looks like a miniature drumstick) and wings (the other, more difficult-to-eat part, also known as flats or tips). The wings varied from meaty to disappointingly slim, from slimy to a perfect crunch/tender balance, from enticingly cheap to overpriced. But almost without exception, the immediate consensus was: Not spicy enough. I should mention, this was not an Oh yeah? I can destroy my taste buds with pepper sauce better than you can exploration of machismo. But we agreed that, ideally, theres a slight element of fear by the fifth wing, a brief hesitation as you bring the wing, dripping with fire-red sauce, to your now-sensitive lips. By wing eight, sweat should be present on your scalp. Not dripping wet, but a noticeable dampness. You want to know youre not eating, say, cottage cheese.
The first stop on the wing tour was the Woody Creek Tavern just down the road from Aspen, where I recall a stellar wing experience some years ago. This latest episode I would call only good. The order ($7.95, with celery and carrots) featured eight good-sized wings all drummettes, which is a good thing as far as meatiness and cleanliness go, but a mystery as far as accounting for the other part of the bird. But the texture was a tad crunchy there might have been some breading involved, a serious no-no in my purists view. And, in a hint of things to come, the spice factor could have been ratcheted up several degrees.Hands down, the best-looking plate of wings is at the J-Bar (330 E. Main St., Aspen, at the Hotel Jerome). Wings dont have a tradition of being presentation-friendly, but here the order (12 wings for $11, or $7 during happy hour) is neat and appetizing. The celery and carrots are complemented by a leaf of romaine lettuce for extra color and texture. The wings themselves are plump and perfectly cooked, with only the usual complaint: Wheres the spice?News youve got to know: Little Annies (517 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen) serves wings. Reluctantly, sporadically, even secretly. Theyre not on the menu, and the first time I asked the waitress if they had them, she paused and gave a suspicious look before explaining the policy. Only during off-peak hours, if theyre not busy otherwise their fryers would be swamped by the demand for wings. And she has a good point: Annies wings ($8.95 for 12, with veggies) are excellent. They come out glistening and glowing red, and for a change, they come close to fulfilling my sadistic desire for oral discomfort.The newspaper reports have it that Cooper Street Pier closed for failure to pay rent and utilities a perspective that ignores the underlying problem: lousy wings. Ill miss the burger special, the warm sunny spot at the front window, the dive-bar vibe but good riddance to Cooper Streets small, limp, slippery wings ($7.95 for 10).At the Aspen branch of Zanes Tavern (308 S. Hunter St., Aspen), wings arent hidden; theyre out front. Zanes pulls in customers with its offer of 35-cent wings during happy hour. (Otherwise, its $8.50 for 10, no carrot and celery.) And they tend to go overboard, giving diners the choice of Asian, Cajun, BBQ, chipotle and teriyaki, in addition to plain ol hot. The advice here: skip the fancy flavors, get there during at the stroke of happy hour 4 p.m., every day and feast on the regular hot wings, which are both the cheapest in Aspen and of the highest quality.A first visit to the Hickory House (730 W. Main St., Aspen) where the veggies-free orders range from $6.29 for eight to $59 for 100 (I was sooo tempted) was fine, save for the lack of peppery pain. On a second visit, however, this shortcoming was remedied beautifully. There was a smattering of tiny, white-ish spices garlic? proprietary heat crystals? that multiplied the fire factor. I walked out awash in scalp sweat. Hurray!To my surprise, wings were tough to find at lunchtime in the midvalley area. Finally I settled on Smoke Modern BBQ (241 Harris St., Willits Town Center, Basalt) where the waitress was happy to accommodate my special request: three each of the Smokin Spicy and BBQ flavors ($5.95, with celery and carrots). These were probably the best-cooked of the lot a bit of texture to the skin, moist but done on the inside and were as meaty as any I sampled. But that Smokin Spicy tag is a reference to the restaurant name; anyone expecting smoke to shoot out of their ears will be disappointed.You wont find wings on the menu at Toppers (300 Puppy Smith St., Aspen), but come 3 p.m. you can get a plate of em (10 for $4, no veggies). Toppers takes the high road to the low-brow food: Their wings (wingers only, no drummies) come from hormone- and antibiotic-free chickens, and one look at the wings reveals a uniquely rich, red sauce. In taste, however, Toppers are straight out of Buffalo: meaty, messy. And almost spicy enough.