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April 11, 2012

The Taste Bud: Chicken wings fit for a king

Eating animals to survive is a time-honored tradition for carnivores such as human beings. To that end, over the last couple of decades, the popularity of the chicken wing has risen dramatically, thanks in no small part to the emergence of hot wings in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1970s and ’80s.

In a way, the ubiquitous “hot wing” or “Buffalo wing” has become a modern version of King Henry VIII’s turkey leg (albeit quite a bit smaller). Hearty men gather to regale each other with tales of sport (usually involving Cards and Cats), and feast merrily upon fried appendages of bird.

But isn’t it nice when you find something just a little bit different in your quest for bird flesh? I became so fortunate recently when my buddy Kirk tipped me off to the wings at the recently opened Hilltop Tavern on Frankfort Avenue, in the space formerly occupied by the Recovery Room and Kentucky Barbecue.

Hilltop serves up a lot of comfort food, including signatures like a meatloaf sandwich and a Kentucky hot brown, but it was the wings I was focused on when Kirk and I visited. What makes them different? For one, they are whole wings, not the wingette and drummette pieces served by most restaurants and bars.

Most important is how they are prepared: The wings are first smoked for about two hours, and then fried. I spoke to one of the cooks on the down low, and he said the smoking time varies.

“It’s all about the color,” he said. When the wings reach the proper color, they are seasoned and fried until the skin is crispy and crunchy, with the meat itself remaining moist and tender.

He told us the wings came about because a few regulars requested some for a Super Bowl party. He smoked whole wings, fried them and created some signature sauces, then began to offer them occasionally as specials. Requests for the wings became so frequent that they now are a daily staple at Hilltop.

“It definitely took on a life of its own,” the chef said.

The four flavors offered are: Spicy Buffalo, Louisville Red, Maui-Wowie and Carolina Mustard. Kirk and I sampled each flavor and agreed the Spicy Buffalo is the winner — it’s by far the spiciest, but it’s also the one whose sauce has the greatest flavor-burst.

Louisville Red is a mild barbecue-style sauce that takes a backseat to the smoke in the meat, while Carolina Mustard has a hint of mustard and a slight kick. The Maui-Wowie wings are braised in pineapple and orange juices along with some unidentified spices and herbs that provide more heat and are less sweet than expected. (For those of you who are familiar with the, er, recreational herb sometimes referred to as “Maui-Wowie,” I’m pretty sure the wings at Hilltop are not laced with those types of herbs.)

Really, though, the treat here is the smoky, tender chicken, not the sauces. Whereas many traditional hot wings can get dry from being fried too long, every wing we feasted upon remained moist.

“It’s like drinking a chicken,” Kirk said between mouth-watering bites.

And I couldn’t get enough of the crispy skin — it’s almost worth it to eat the skin separately to get the full flavor of the sauces, and then dig into the meat.

Either way, Kirk and I agreed that even though it takes a little bit of work to devour one of these things, the wing experience is unique and tasty enough to be worth the effort and the greasy hands. Plus, you get four whole wings for just $6.50, which is a pretty nice price. Heck, you can share with friends as an appetizer or just eat four as a meal.

And as you rip the wings apart at the tendon and greedily yank the smoky flesh away from the bone with gnashing teeth, you can truly feel like a modern-day Henry VIII — without all the ex-wives and executions. 

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