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The best of the biggies

We could sing that Chili's baby back ribs song in our sleep.

"I want my baby back, baby back, baby back ribs. Chil-eeee's baby back ribs."

Now it's trapped in your head, too. (Better than It's a Small World, isn't it?)

Chili's ribs, yes. Chili's chicken wings? Doesn't ring any musical bells.

In fact, Chili's might be the last place we'd call to order takeout wings for a Super Bowl party. There are other, more well-known wings joints, such as Hooters and Ker's WingHouse.

Chili's seems more burgers than fried wings to us and, apparently, to many of you, too. In a St. Petersburg Times online popularity poll on chicken wings, only about 3 percent of voters chose Chili's. Hooters got the most votes, with just more than 50 percent.

Apparently, it's time to consider Chili's, whose wings were ranked No. 1 in a Times taste test this month. Add one more surprise to a football season in which the championship Buccaneers didn't make the playoffs.

Even the tasting panel was befuddled.

"Chili's?" said judge and Bucs offensive tackle Cornell Green, a St. Petersburg native. "I didn't even know they had wings."

Time for another catchy advertising jingle.

The people who weren't surprised at the outcome were the folks at Chili's, who say wings are one of the chain's most popular appetizers, even without a signature song.

"We're thrilled to edge out some of that competition," said David Jones, one of the managers at the Chili's near Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg where the winning wings were made.

Because the Super Bowl is Sunday (6:25 p.m. kickoff on WTSP-Ch. 10), and because food might be more important than the game this year, we figured a lot of you would be ordering wings for takeout. And we wondered which of the big chains had the tastiest offerings. We were looking for the right amount of heat, meat and mess.

The Bucs' Green; pitcher Seth McClung of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; Kay Evers, owner of the Sunset Grille in St. Petersburg and daughter of Hoot Evers, who played with the Detroit Tigers and other major-league teams in the 1940s and '50s; and Times food critic Chris Sherman gathered at the Tampa Bay Cooking Academy in St. Petersburg for a blind taste test.

The judges weren't blindfolded but wings were presented on identical white platters rather than in their branded packaging. The wings were identified only by numbers during the judging. We leveled the tasting field as much as possible by making sure the wings were picked up simultaneously and were being sampled within about an hour.

In addition to Chili's, we got wings from Hooters (10400 Roosevelt Blvd., St. Petersburg), Ker's WingHouse 5 (6445 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg), Beef "O'Brady's (226 37th Ave. N, St. Petersburg) and Quaker Steak and Lube (10400 49th St. N, Pinellas Park).

Evers wondered if the heat factor hurt the ranking of Beef "O'Brady's wings, which finished last in the tasting even though the Times food critic ranked them No. 1. He was encouraged by the fact there was sauce pooled under the wings; other judges thought that made the wings soggy. Sherman also gave Beef "O'Brady's blue cheese dip a perfect score because of its chunks of tangy blue.

Beef's wings were the third to be tasted out of the five but only about an hour had elapsed since they were picked up from the restaurant in St. Petersburg's Northeast Shopping Center. All of the wings were warm or at room temperature at the judging; none were steaming hot.

We didn't think that should matter because it's likely takeout wings will be on the table for at least an hour at a Super Bowl party. (See story on Page 3E about how to reheat wings and how certain containers make them soggy.)

Aaron Carricato, one of the owners of the Northeast Beef "O'Brady's, was surprised his wings didn't test well, being that he sells about half a million a year and claims lots of happy customers. On Super Bowl Sunday, about 10,000 will fly out of the kitchen.

One thing to note about Beef "O'Brady's is that it included more wet wipes with the takeout order than the others and packed the celery and blue cheese separately so both stayed relatively cold. Nothing worse than limp, warm celery.

The restaurants didn't know the orders of 50 medium wings were for a taste test. We wanted our wings to be prepared and packed just like the wings you might order on Sunday. No special treatment.

Some came with blue cheese and celery; some did not. If you're ordering takeout and you want the accompaniments, make sure to ask if they are included in the price.

Individual tastes were major players in the rankings. Some judges liked their wings wet and messy, others wanted them crisp and dry. Most agreed they should be meaty, but opinions varied on which part of the wing is best: middle joint or drumette?

We asked the judges to rate the heat by asking if the wings seemed hotter or milder than medium, or just right. According to the judges, all the wings seemed more mild than medium. So if you like a kick to your wings, you'd probably be better off ordering hot instead of medium, or better yet, try them before you order for a party.

The judges recognized Hooters wings immediately because of the breading that Sherman said makes them more like fried chicken than traditional Buffalo wings. And each judge graded them down because of it.

Traditional Buffalo wings, born in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., don't have breading. Buffalo wings are deep-fried and then coated with a spicy sauce made from bottled hot sauce and butter. Chicken wings consist of a tip, middle and meatier "drumette," separated by joints. Some places discard the tip and use only the separated middle and drumette pieces.

Chili's serves only drumettes, which judges thought could have been meatier, but there was no doubt they were easier to eat than the middle joint. They were sold on the flavor, which had a nice kick that still let the flavor of the chicken come through.

Ker's WingHouse, the second-place finisher, was cited for the sweetness in its sauce. That set its wings apart from the others and boosted its taste ranking. WingHouse also got high marks for meatiness and appearance.

The most surprising finish was Hooters, a chain responsible for spreading the popularity of wings throughout the United States and even the world. In 1983, Hooters opened in Clearwater with wings as a cornerstone of the menu. Today, Hooters restaurants are located around the United States, plus Switzerland, Singapore and Argentina, among other countries.

Hooters has history and controversy, thanks to its female servers in tight tops, short-shorts and shiny stockings, but it also has a lot of competition. Wings are served in nearly every neighborhood bar and grill, as well as all the big dining chains, with places such as Quaker Steak and Lube edging into the scene. The Pennsylvania chain opened its first Tampa Bay area restaurant in Pinellas Park last fall and the dinner wait still creeps past 60 minutes.

Quaker offers more than a dozen flavors of wings, including a Chinese version with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Our judges placed Quaker in the middle of the pack with the individual rankings all over the place. McClung gave Quaker the most possible points (15) for size while Sherman gave them only 5.

But size didn't completely matter in our taste test. The smaller Chili's wings took on the big guys and won.

HOW THE WINGS RANKED

Wings were judged on appearance, heat, size and taste, with each of four judges giving up to 100 points per entry. Out of a possible 400 points, the results were:

1. Chili's, 282 points

2. Ker's WingHouse, 222 points

3. Quaker Steak and Lube, 216 points

4. Hooters, 197 points

5. Beef "O'Brady's, 151 points

ON THE WEB

For a multimedia look at the wing judging, got to www.sptimes.com/wings.

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