On the Love of Wings (Did you see what I did there?)

Now that’s a badass collection of tequila, perfect to wash back a plate full of Chivo wings with. Photo by Rick Held.

A Scruffy City restaurant review 

I am not sure at what exact point I understood that chicken wings are a primal experience for me. 

Not primal like “primitive” or “caveman,” although a bit of that (which I’ll get into in a minute).

But not primarily that (Did you see what I did there?!). 

I am referring to the chicken wing experience as primal in the Oxford sense, i.e. “relating to an early stage in evolutionary development.” 

And yet even that definition needs context.  Because if, as my grandson and a couple scientific journals tell me, chickens are direct descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex, then chicken wings are definitely related to an “early stage in evolutionary development,” i.e. the evolution of a species. 

Chicken wings are definitely primal in their own right.

But here, I am talking about an early stage in my own evolutionary development.

Somewhere in the distant fog of my earliest memories I am sitting in a high chair, blissfully gnawing with an incomplete set of baby teeth on the most satisfyingly tasty and textured bit of mouth joy I have ever known in my (not long) life. The experience is literally pacifying me. 

Apparently, the big people took note of this and made sure that in my early childhood there were more of these wonderful wings at my disposal than those rubbery things all the other kids had in their mouths.

So yes, I am a chicken wing imprintee.

Thus, several decades on, it is a simple statement of natural fact and not braggadocio when I say I know my wings. Or at least I have some strong opinions about wings, most of which developed over a lifetime of not only having them served up to me, but also serving them up to the world myself, via my trusty Weber Smokey Joe grill, with all manner of variations on seasonings, sauces, dips, and sides.

None of the above presumes that I am the last word on wings. Food is too subjective a subject for final, global pronouncements.  One person’s ambrosia is another’s awful. 

However, I would like to think that my “seasoned” wing experience (did you see what I did there?!) can provide some redeeming social value to our fair community. In that spirit, a good place to start might be a survey of the surprising array of local, homegrown wing establishments and some of the contributions – culinary, cultural, or otherwise – they offer to us.  Please note the word “homegrown” in the previous sentence; I will leave all things “Buffalo,” as well as Hooters and their franchised ilk, to their own devices. 

There is a basic spectrum of wing preparation that lays the foundation for whatever seasonings or sauces are applied (or not) before the wings land on your serving platter. Deep fried naked (without a coat of breading) is probably the most common cooking style.  Charcoal grilled is at the other end of the wing cooking spectrum, with a good handful of variations from “chicken-fried” to “smoked” in between.

For an initial Knoxville wing survey, a look at two opposite ends of the wing spectrum seems like a good first take on the local possibilities.

About ten years ago the owners of Wings Xpress converted a Long John Silver’s on Clinton Highway into their own scaled down, partial take on the “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” Hooters motif.  This includes sports paraphernalia on every wall (but just one TV, permanently tuned to ESPN) and friendly, skinny blonde servers in short shorts (but full-length t-shirts). 

Wings Xpress wings, courtesy of their menu.

The menu covers the full range of sports bar fare, from wings to burgers to subs to pizza and perhaps the largest selection of fried sides in town.

The fried fare goes from the standard okra, mushrooms, and onion rings to the local favorites of fried pickles and green beans, to the bit more exotic fried banana peppers. 

Then there’s the fried mac and cheese bites.  And don’t forget the fried cheesecake.

Get the fried pickles. These are not your standard dill spears dipped in a boring crunchy batter. The thinly sliced chips are lightly breaded in a pepper-speckled batter that perfectly meets the pickle pucker without overpowering it. Perfectly pleasing (see what I did there?!).

Technically, Wings Xpress offers two options on how their wings are cooked: deep fried naked or “oven roasted.”  For scientific purposes, I ordered a few of both, along with two of their in-house sauces – mango habanero and sweet chili.  And of course, ranch dressing. 

The wings came out looking pretty much all the same, except the “oven roasted” ones were a slightly darker color. When compared saucelessly to the equally sauceless deep fried nakeds, the oven roasteds were slightly crunchier, but otherwise both tasted pretty much the same meh. 

Without the interesting sauces coming to the rescue, these wings were never gonna fly (see what I did there?!).

Upon inquiry, the friendly blonde server in short shorts verified that the oven roasteds were indeed initially deep fried nakeds.

Get the fried pickles.

Walking off of Gay Street into Chivo Taqueria, Tequila, and Whiskey, you might wonder why you didn’t push through swinging saloon doors and see an Eastwood-looking hombre ordering another mezcal before he outdraws the menacing saddle tramp sneaking up behind him. 

Which is not to say this place is dangerous.

With its extensive collection of tequilas – hundreds lined upon tall shelves behind the concrete slab of a bar; paint-chipped cement walls pitted with something like bullet holes, and Day of the Dead sugar skull art looming over the entire dim-lit scene, “badass” is a pretty fair description – of the food as much as the vibe of the place.

On its website Chivo summarizes itself as “Badass tacos and an extensive tequila menu in downtown Knoxville.”

Add wings to the Chivo badassery. 

Chivo wings come up through the fiery end, which is to say the more primal end, of the wing cooking spectrum.  There were no deep fryers back in the day. You hunted, gathered, and made a fire. Back in the day everyone was badass. Or dinner.

Flames touch something in wings – in all meat – that hot oil or oven baking can’t touch, leaving behind in the meat the subtle essence of charcoaled hickory or maple or cherry or mesquite, to make meat magic.

I am told by the badass bartender that the wings are smoked every morning in a smoker set up in the basement of the century-plus old building on Gay Street that houses the taqueria, then finished off in the kitchen over a charcoal flame grill, where the street corn also resides.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was raised on fresh ears of Silver Queen when they were at their sugary peak, around the Fourth of July.  It was strict practice that corn on the cob was boiled for exactly 8 minutes and would only take butter and salt.  Anything more was culinary malpractice and would get you banished to the little kids’ table, where they put peanut butter on bologna.

So street corn, fire-grilled with all of its weird, multi-colored seasonings that made it look like it literally was rolled around on and then picked off the street, was never my jam.

But the badass bartender insisted that it went with the wings.

In service to higher purpose, I relented. 

The terms “smoky and sweet” get tossed around to describe every undeserving thing from cheap whiskey to cigars to turkey chili.

And yet.

No truer words nail the fiery dance of the flame-kissed Chivo wing and the street corn, dressed to kill in chile powder, shredded asadero partially melted to cream, and at least three other badass mysteries sprinkled upon the plump, tender kernels.  The exquisitely smoky flavor of the naked wing, kissed by the essence of the street corn’s fiery sweetness, would only be lessened by dipping it in any sauce. And so it was in kind with the street corn, taken up with the savory, smokey, somehow juicy essence of the wing.

Ahem….Primal indeed.

(See what I did there?!)

Rick Held can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on June 9, 2021