As a "New South" transplant, I've run into one major hurdle in making Charlotte feel like home. It's not the absurdly early times movie theaters close or the incessant corporate brown-nosing of Crown Town boosters. It's the hot wings.
I cannot overstate my love for this humble dish. It levels the culinary playing field; I'd pit the hot wings from a tiny Chinese-Jamaican takeout stand in Miami's Little Haiti against anything coming out of Johnson & Wales. Tossed in a tangy, fiery sauce while still sizzling from the pan, the pedigree of the chef matters not in the success of this juicy yet firm delicacy. Great versions can be found in soul food shacks and skeevy dive bars, sometimes in suburban mall food courts and even a Michelin-starred restaurant or two.
But in three years, I still had not found my Q.C. hot wings home. Most were too tame. The operative word in hot wings, almost more important than the chicken wing itself, is HOT. A bracing burn, complemented by garlic, jerk and other flavors without which wings would run the risk of being hot but bland. Others overstepped the bounds of sanity, using a proverbial tank to swat a mosquito; you might get a T-shirt for finishing a wing order, but you stand an equally good chance of getting an ulcer. Wings should be toothy yet tender, with meat that has been marinated and seasoned before baptism in a buttery, robust sauce that makes sweat bead up on your brow. I'd come to conclude Charlotte just didn't know good wings. Until CL asked me to find the hottest wings in the city, and I had reason — nay, obligation — to go on one last great search.
With my mom and husband in tow, I visited D.D. Pecker's, Ed's Tavern, Wild Wing Café and East Coast Wings. Along the way I learned that corporate isn't always a dirty word, and nearly suffered death by hot wing, too.
D.D. PECKER'S is tucked away in a second-tier strip mall near Pineville. The T-shaped dining room is long and dark, and the upholstery has seen better days. But there are paper towel rolls on every table, and our super-friendly waitress, a slight creature with a blonde ponytail and a high heat tolerance, suggested I go straight for the blazing hot wings. "I used to drink the stuff," she said. "But not when I was pregnant."
The wings arrived in a flash, a basket of sticky flats flecked with black pepper and rolled in a promisingly pungent hot sauce. D.D.'s fries its hot wings and then douses them in sauce, but by request will add the third step of hitting them on the grill to really seal in the flavor. I opted for the regular two-step and was not disappointed.
The wings weren't exactly blazing, but are a good compromise for groups with different levels of heat tolerance. My husband, the tenderfoot, ate them with ease, prompting him to ask if I could even taste them — he insists I burned my taste buds out years ago in childhood hot sauce-eating contests with my siblings. In fact, the wings had a decent heat that registered a 5 out of 10 on my jaded tongue. The rounded-out flavors were a nice surprise — a little smoky, vinegar-y, with a warm finish that left a pleasant buzz on my lips. A good start! Not a heart-stopper, but not too shabby either.
I'm not a Chuck Norris fan, but when I heard Ed's Tavern in Dilworth had something called Chuck Norris wings, I forgave Delta Force and got my butt in the door. Clearly, Ed's is going for the hipster jugular. The nearly century-old location has a cool factor that's crystal clear the moment you walk in. I immediately saw, stretched out before me, a parade of future Sunday afternoons lost to the oversized Jenga set, pool tables, cornhole and their utterly immodest draft selection. But Chuck Norris? The wings are more like Chuck Mangione. They'll do nicely for Sunday brunch, but are hardly a kick in the face. Technically, my 74-year-old mother can take Chuck Norris: She laughed when the waitress offered her more water, and used the sauce to dip the house-made chips.
And then there is East Coast Wings, by Northlake Mall. This suburban outpost has a range of flavored hot wings, the hottest being the "Insanity" wings. Insanity wings are only served one at a time and require your signature on a disclaimer form; they come with plastic gloves and servers immediately clear the plate away to prevent others in a party from trying it. I wish I'd read the small print. It's more a novelty than actual food, and, like its highly accurate name, it's not an enjoyable experience — during or after eating. The sauce is made by sadists who distill oils from a proprietary mix of peppers, with no respect for flavor or balance. The taste isn't pleasant; in fact, there is a faintly muddy, almost excremental note that most won't detect because they're too busy crying in pain. Insanity sauce hits the scale at around 3,000,000 Scoville Units — to put it in perspective, a habañero pepper measures around 150,000 heat units.
Bite 1: OK, OK, this is pretty ... aaaaaahhhhh!!!
My throat burned for a solid hour. The server thought it would be funny to take his time bringing the milk, but then ended up being honestly delayed. (Which made absolutely no difference in his tip, scout's honor.) To add insult to injury, I started getting hate mail from my intestines around 1 a.m. I couldn't sleep for dry heaving.
By far, the best wings belong to Wild Wing Café. Tim, a bartender at the EpiCentre location, recommended the Braveheart wings. Touted as being "so hot you can lose your head over it," they satisfied the heat freak in me at a solid 8, with an extra point for a long, satisfying burn tail, courtesy of the habañero peppers. They're also nice and crispy, well-seasoned and just a little sweet. Even my pepper-averse husband managed to finish a wing. "They're good," he gasped out, between gulps of water.
Mission accomplished. A tiny part of me hates that a chain has the best hot wings in Charlotte, but not enough to keep me from going back.