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Monday, April 19, 2010

Today At My Favorite Wings Joint ...

It's a Monday night and I'm sitting in "T.C.'s Wing House," my favorite wing place in the world, with my sister, her daughter, and my oldest brother's son. Earlier in the day my sister called me at work and asked if I wanted to meet them for dinner after work ... my treat, of course. Of course, I agreed, minus the "me treating" part.

The Wing House is typical of every wing-slinging dive in the country I've ever patronized ... noisy patrons happy for the taste of a cold beverage, multiple big-screen TVs tuned to sports of all types, messy napkin and condiment stations, cool track lighting, crowded tables and booths, and the ever-popular trivia remotes obviously perched on several tables.

I love wings, the spicier the better. But I'm also a bit demanding. I like good spicy food, but for the life of me I can't understand why some of these bars and pubs make these scalding hot dishes that are all fire and no flavor. Heat for heat's sake just doesn't make sense. Does it really make you more of a man if you survive eating something that can dissolve the lining of your mouth and gums? Go figure.

My late father and I had similar philosophical leanings when it came to spicy foods, especially chili. Food that successfully combines "heat" and "flavor" should surprise you, not make you frantically search for a glass of water ... or a fire hose. It should open up your nasal passages, not cause open sores to sprout on your tongue. It should make you sweat, not swoon.

One time in college, one of my roommates, Brodie, decided to make chili. He had a recipe for something called "Texas Oilman's Chili" that called for cubed-up sirloin, three different types of peppers, tons of expensive spices, lots of red onion, and even a healthy spoonsful of horseradish. It was actually delicious, but cost prohibitive for college students. I remember telling my Dad that that chili probably ended up being about $9 a bowl, but once I described to him how good the "sweat" from it was, he offered $10.

Back to the wings ... like most places, T.C.'s has a range of wing flavors ... timid to bold to beyond bold (I bet your regular wing joint has similar selections). There's "mild" and "medium" for the beginners, two tastes that, at most establishments, seem identical to me. And there's two barbecues ... "smokey" and "sweet." The general strength of flavor and heat goes up a notch then with teriyaki (always one of my favorites for it's depth), "Spicy Garlic," "Sesame Ginger," and "Parmesian" (which is surprisingly hot). Then there's a few choices that promise spicy richness ... "Island Jerk," "Mango Fire," and "Burbon Street." And finally, T.C.'s has three hotties to try. One is called "Blazin' Wildfire" and it does simply scorch the land of your mouth and throat like an out-of-control conflagration. The second is "Habanero Heat," combining a tobasco heat with the scorch of it's namesake pepper. And the last flamethrowing menu item on the wing spectrum of taste is ... drumroll, please ... "Valhalla Hot." Down the street it's called "Dante's Inferno." At a place in D.C. near Georgetown where the fish tacos are out of this world, it's named "Five-Alarm Fantasy." It's pure heat ... pure eye-watering irritant. In my opinion, it ain't any good!

Most really "hot" hot wings incorporate capsaicin, an oil found in many types of peppers. Capsaicin affects the nerve receptors in tissues, especially mucous membranes ... that's what causes the burning sensation in your mouth when you bite into a pepper or eat a "hot" wing.

Some restaurants include a copy of the notorious "Scoville Scale," a rating of peppers and corresponding foods according to their capsaicin levels, in their bar menus.

Like with most things, different people have different tolerances for capsaicin. That's why you all know someone who can eat something you consider extremely mild but they freak out over the "spicy" taste. Or who doesn't have one person in your life who can eat things that are just-short-of-actual-fire hot and never flinch.

From my own personal experience, I know that, when faced with a too capsaicin-rich dish or wing, water doesn't help. It just spreads the oil around, making the burning spread more quickly. And don't look to a cold beer for any first-aid assistance ... alcohol is said to only intensify the burn.

For me, ice cream or a small taste of sour cream works best. I have friends who say a glass of milk or a spoonful of yogurt does the trick for them. The fats in dairy products seem to dissipate the burn, and most bars and restaurants have these things on hand.

If lactose and you are not friends, try a lemonade of a lemon- or fruit-wedge from the bar ... the acidity in these items cuts through the capsaicin attack.

And I read someplace that capsaicin and starch don't play well together. The starch in rice, bread, and even a banana can help beat the heat back to a managable level.

POINT OF RANT: If you are gastrointestinally challenged, be prepared whenever possible!

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