Nick Garrison sprinkles bacon pieces on a plate of Buffalo Bacon Nacho wings at Binga’s Stadium in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When the Patriots kick off against the Steelers today, chances are Mainers will watch with a chicken wing in one hand, a beer in the other.

Over the past few decades, chicken wings have become closely associated with sports — especially football. But restaurateurs say wings are now so entrenched, they’re popular year-round, as easy to find in finer restaurants and craft beer tasting rooms as in sports bars and at home in front of the big screen TV. And while buffalo and barbecue wings are still ubiquitous on menus, chicken wing fans have more sauce choices than ever before, thanks to upscale tweaking and chefs who venture waaay outside of the box. (Salted caramel wings, anyone?)

Today’s diners can get wings smoked, fried or grilled, and in various sizes. Jumbo-sized drums (also known as drumettes) can be so big it makes you wonder if the chicken was some sort of poultry powerhouse, a bully of the barnyard. Some restaurants let customers order all flats, which have less meat than drums but tend to be less messy. Great Lost Bear in Portland serves the entire wing — the drum, flat and tip. No matter where you order, wings are typically tossed in a sauce and served with a side of blue cheese or ranch dipping sauce. Blue cheese is preferred in the Northeast, according to the National Chicken Council. The rest of the country chooses ranch.

In Maine, it’s the cool down in the weather, as much as the start of football season, that brings wing-craving customers into Binga’s Wingas, says owner Alec Altman. Summers are slower because everyone wants to be outside. But when customers return, he’s ready for them with their favorite bar snack, tossed in their choice of two to three dozen sauces.

“Sports doesn’t really drive demand as much as demand drives itself,” Altman said. “Even if a recession hits, I don’t think people are going to give up their wings.”

It’s the opposite in Acton, where summer visitors to the lakes scarf down 2,000 pounds of chicken wings a week at Willy’s Ale Room. After Labor Day, when the tourists leave, that number drops by about half, says chef/owner Chris Palladino. Willy’s serves chilis and chowders, steaks and burgers, and entrees such as grilled ribeye and pan-roasted salmon, but wings are their No. 1 seller. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, “wing nights,” a plate of 10 wings sells for $6. Lines often snake out the door.

Palladino opened Willy’s in 2003, and his list of chicken wing sauces, all made from scratch, has grown from about 10 to more than 30. In addition to the usual honey mustard, teriyaki, and barbecue sauce, he offers such unusual flavors as sour cream and onion (a dry rub) and “choconuts,” a chocolate-hazelnut sauce. His salted caramel wings are tossed in caramel sauce, then sprinkled with pretzel salt. “It’s just a matter of trying to get ideas,” he said. “You don’t want it to get stale. Probably once or twice a year, we swap out flavors.”

When South Portland resident Brooke Hamilton heard about Palladino’s salted caramel wings from this reporter, she blurted out: “I’m going there this weekend!”

Hamilton, 38, describes herself on Twitter as a “chicken wing enthusiast.” She is head of design for a Maine start-up company and mother of two vegetarian children. She and her husband are pescatarian —  except when it comes to chicken wings.

“I eat wings almost every week,” Hamilton said. “I ate wings twice last week. It was amazing.”

Flavors galore

She has plenty of options in Portland, where restaurants advertise chili lime rubs (East Ender) and sweet Thai chili sauces (The Porthole and Gritty’s). Since this is Maine, blueberry shows up regularly. King’s Head Pub has a spicy dry coffee rub, and Tomaso’s Canteen has a sauce called Pooh that’s made with honey, lemon and garlic. RiRa does what any self-respecting Irish pub might do — adds booze to the mix. Its menu includes a Guinness BBQ sauce, a Sriracha IPA glaze and a Jameson ginger glaze.

Valley Girl chicken wings, left, and Buffalo Bacon Nacho wings at Binga’s Stadium in downtown Portland. Photo by Meredith Goad

One of the most popular sauces at Binga’s is Valley Girl. Altman says the story behind the sauce, written on the menu, is true: “The name comes from a 2 a.m. conversation with a Wharf Street regular: “Could you, like, mix BBQ, buffalo and honey mustard? Could you, like, totally name that sauce after me?!”

For several years now PB&J (yes, peanut butter and jelly) has been a popular flavor, interpreted in different ways on different menus. Willy’s makes a peanut butter-based sauce and adds grape jelly. Binga’s has had its version on the menu for eight years now, though Altman prefers the sauce on sweet potato fries.

At Great Lost Bear, where customers chew through 960 pounds of chicken wings a week, the PB&J wing is a blend of peanut and sweet chili sauces.

Hamilton’s go-to wing place is Great Lost Bear, where she almost always orders the buffalo wings because “I am just sort of in love with their buffalo sauce.” She estimates she’s eaten wings there 100 times since she moved to Maine 10 years ago.

“The buffalo there is not overly spicy, and it’s not hot for the sake of being hot,” she said.

Get ’em while they’re hot

For extra heat, the Bear offers “Hell Fire Wings,” which comes with a strict “no returns” policy noted on the menu.

“Quite honestly, they used to be a lot hotter, and we toned it down, so we don’t get as many returns as we used to,” said owner Dave Evans. “They were nasty hot. We weren’t selling any at that point. It’s fun, but we don’t want to scare people away.”

How hot can wings get? Well, that’s become something of an unspoken competition. Most restaurants with serious wing menus offer several hot-and-spicy choices, some of which appear to be there just for show. Palladino admits that his hottest wing sauce, called “Finger of God,” is brutal: “You can’t even put that on your tongue,” he said.

Willy’s customers have to sign a waiver, in front of a witness at the table, if they order one of the restaurant’s four hottest sauces. It’s a joke, but only sort of — Palladino says people have had to leave the restaurant when they’ve gotten in over their heads with the heat.

Finger of God packs a mouth-broiling 7 million Scoville units (a measurement of spiciness). Compare that to the 2,500-8,000 units in a jalapeno pepper. Palladino prepares the scorching-hot sauce with a butter base, adding jalapeno, habanero, ghost and Moruga scorpion peppers — the last on their own log in at more than 2 million Scoville units. After a slow cook in butter to extract the oils and rehydrate the peppers, Palladino purees the mixture with Frank’s hot sauce, cayenne, and droplets of Scoville extract.

Taste it if you dare. “If you can actually make it through it,” the chef says, “it has a decent amount of flavor.”

Back in the day

These 21st-century wings are all a long way from the snack’s humble beginnings in 1964, when the only option was the famous buffalo sauce served at The Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. In the 1980s, chicken wings took off, as consumers decided they preferred the convenience of boneless, skinless chicken breasts over roasting whole chickens. Wings became largely superfluous, until restaurant and bar owners discovered they could offer them to customers at a low price, then sit back and watch beer sales skyrocket.

At the same time, sports bars with lots of televisions became more commonplace, and the most popular sport to watch was football.

“It’s a social food,” says Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council. “You get a big plate of wings, you’re watching the game and sitting around the table hanging out.”

Bowls containing the many signature sauces for chicken wings at Binga’s Stadium in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

One recent night at Binga’s Winga’s Stadium in downtown Portland, everyone was socializing as they ate their wings. All the televisions were tuned to a canned program about the Boston Bruins at a time when the Red Sox were actually playing a game, but no one seemed to care because they weren’t watching.

No one was glued to their phone, either, perhaps because it’s a bad idea when your fingers drip with glops of processed cheese and big pieces of bacon as you munch on Binga’s Buffalo Bacon Nacho wings. Instead of wondering how many chicken wings the restaurant goes through each week, you’re wondering how many napkins they go through. By the time nothing is left on the plate but a pile of bones, your fingers and face are covered in cheese, and the clothes you’re wearing need washing. This is toddler food. Fun, but oh so messy. (Hamilton’s take? “It’s bacon. It’s buffalo. It’s nacho. It’s perfect.”)

Over the past 30 years or so, chicken wings have become an equal opportunity snack, with women enjoying them as much, if not more, than men. Altman said Binga’s hosts lots of bachelorette parties and ladies’ night out gatherings. The night Elton John came to town in 2017, he said, 60 percent of his customers were middle-aged women getting a bite before the concert.

Hamilton says the people she knows who love wings most are female. When she eats wings, Hamilton digs in with her bare hands, “ladylike” table manners be damned. She speaks with disdain of the men she sees sitting nearby, daintily eating boneless wings or chicken tenders with a knife and fork.

Hamilton clearly knows her stuff. She casually discusses wing surface area and how the Bear’s large, intact wings retain more moisture. But she also loves the sweet-hot combination of the Redneck wings at Binga’s, and the honey-chipotle wings at Hot Suppa in Portland. Here’s her tip for fellow wing lovers: Shade, the restaurant at the Higgins Beach Inn in Scarborough, pickle-brines its wings.

One of Hamilton’s life goals is to try Pok Pok Wings, Vietnamese wings marinated in fish sauce that have become popular in other parts of the country.

“I’ve never eaten them,” she said. “That’s my dream. Someday I will try Pok Pok wings.”

 

Great Lost Bear’s Tikka Masala Chicken Wings With Cilantro Dipping Sauce. Photo courtesy of Chris Milligan

TIKKA MASALA WINGS WITH CILANTRO DIPPING SAUCE

Chris Milligan, kitchen manager at the Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue in Portland, developed this recipe to enter in a chicken wing challenge held last spring at Liquid Riot Bottling Co. (Alas, he didn’t win.)  If you prefer to bake your wings rather than deep-frying them, Milligan suggests baking them naked so the wings will get crisp, then tossing them in the sauce once they’re cooked through.

Yield: sauce for 2 dozen wings

FOR THE WINGS SAUCE:

2 tablespoons butter

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon cayenne

1 tablespoon turmeric

1 tablespoon paprika

2 tablespoons garam masala

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1/4 cup heavy cream

Melt the butter in a sauce pan. Add the onions and cook on medium high until they begin to soften. Add the garlic, stirring often until the garlic becomes aromatic, just a minute or less. Reduce the heat to medium low and add the spices and sugar and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and cream and reduce until desired thickness.

Meanwhile, cook the wings however you like (they deep-fry them at Great Lost Bear), then toss them in the wings sauce. Serve the sauce-coated wings with the Cilantro Dipping Sauce.

FOR THE CILANTRO DIPPING SAUCE:

1 bunch cilantro

1 cup Greek yogurt

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

Combine the ingredients in food processor or blender and puree until fully incorporated.

 

 

 

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