What I didn't know about chicken wings when I first set foot in Hurricane Grill and Wings would fill the corporate libraries of Tyson and Perdue.
I didn't know the things we eat today by the basket-load, a deep-fried finger-food that has conquered corner bars and corporate franchises, the dripping mouthfuls of heat served with a tub of blue cheese dip and celery sticks for tailgate parties up and down the East Coast, came into being just 40 years ago. The Bellissimo family served the original hot-sauce-drenched wing at its Italian eatery the Anchor Bar to take the edge off late-night drinking. Or else the chicken wing was pioneered at Young's Wings 'n' Things, where John Young drew on the history of African-American chicken recipes to come up with his special Mambo sauce, creating from a not-so-appetizing poultry part (only a neck or tail could be less edible) a snack to turn otherwise reasonable people into Mambo-smeared zombies. Here's what we know for sure: The greasy trail from today's Hooters or Wing Hut leads back to Buffalo, New York, in the mid-1960s.
I also didn't know that Americans eat 90 pounds of chicken per person a year. Chicken wings are the fastest-growing segment of the "casual dining" market, according to Nation's Restaurant News, soaring high through war and recession. And I didn't realize that the boneless chicken wings advertised on sports-bar backboards aren't wings at all. They're pieces of deep-fried chicken breast if you're lucky; they're unidentified chicken scraps pressed together and laden with chemicals if you're not. (A truly boneless chicken wing, achieved by painstaking kitchen surgery, is another story.)
I didn't even know if I liked chicken wings. I had an idea they were messy and fattening and went well with watching football. I do not watch football. Ever. My experience with wings was so crippled that when I forayed out to the new Hurricane Grill and Wings franchise in Plantation, I was obliged to press into service a friend who'd recently moved here from Texas. Michael Mooney is a consummate wingman, a young gourmand so knowledgeable of chicken-wing ways that he was scouting the area for chicken-wing sandwiches. He'd asked me for advice on where to find the best ones. I'd never heard of a chicken-wing sandwich.
So off we went to one of the 400 Hurricane franchises slated to open in the next five years. Area wing nuts will be happy to hear that 60 or more of them are supposed to open in Broward and Palm Beach. That's practically one on every corner.
Chris Russo founded Hurricane in Fort Pierce in 1995, when he was 22. Russo liked to cook; he'd worked in country-club and coffee-shop kitchens during college, and he thought he could do something with an empty barbecue place that was for rent half a block from the beach. He started with hot garlic and Parmesan wings, which are on the Hurricane menu today and still his favorite. He kept adding rubs and flavors, including Mojo, Jamaican jerk, habanero lime, and piña colada. He cooked in that original Fort Pierce kitchen until three years ago, when he hatched his plan to take over the planet a wing at a time.
So far, there are 28 Hurricanes, mostly in Florida. They offer about 30 wing sauces, from fruity to flaming. You can choose boneless wings, made from hand-cut chicken breasts and frozen, or bone-in wings, which are delivered to the Hurricanes three times a week, as well as grouper fingers, fish dip, cheese steaks, and the best French fries you've ever tasted.
I tried to describe those fries, which are made without trans fats, to a bunch of skeptical New Times staffers — and triggered a noisy debate filled with misinformation about what a trans fat is, why it's now illegal to harbor one in New York, whether you could fry a decent spud without it, whether a trans fat is the same as a saturated fat (with much confusion on this point), and the smoking point of olive oil (which is completely irrelevant, because olive oil is neither a trans fat nor a saturated fat). Hurricane's Parmesan-garlic French fries, doused in garlic butter, sprinkled with deliciously gritty cheese, and rushed steaming from the fryer into a paper cone, might constitute the Ultimate Fry Experience. So let's clarify our fat issues.
Hurricane's fries — including its crisp sweet-potato straws drizzled with maple pepper glaze and dusted with powdered sugar — are cooked in a proprietary blend of "zero trans fat oil," Russo says, part of which is recycled into biodiesel fuel. Here's what that means for you and me and KFC, Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, and the slew of foodniks on the zero-trans-fat bandwagon: The National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine announced a couple of years ago that trans fats should not be consumed at all. These vegetable-based Frankenfats, devised in labs and until recently used to extend the shelf life of Oreos and Animal Crackers, considerably shorten our own shelf lives. They are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, which turn into trans fatty acids, which are wickedly bad for you, as well as mono- or poly-unsaturated oils. And they're going the way of the dodo.
Saturated fats are something else. They include bacon fat, butter, cream, coconut oil, palm oil, leaf lard, cocoa butter, and eggs. Health mavens say they're either wildly good for you or certain death, but everyone agrees they make everything taste heavenly. They've had a long, amorous relationship with humans that's likely to continue indefinitely. And they don't have a thing to do with Hurricane's amazing fries either.
Russo was slippery on the fat question, but we can guess that the oil he and his franchisees use to crisp their wings and fingers and fries is some combination of unsaturated vegetable oils, like canola, peanut, cottonseed, sunflower, rice bran, or saturated palm oil. (At Texas A&M's zero-trans-fat contest last year, judges unanimously preferred the taste of fries cooked in such zero trans fat oils over those done in the partially hydrogenated stuff.) If you're wondering how healthy that is — let's say you're fretting over the diameter of your arteries or your waist — you're not going to eat fries and chicken wings anyway, right? Especially not Hurricane's Obscenely Loaded fries, which are served with cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses, bacon, salsa, jalapeños, and ranch dressing. You probably won't be chugging any of Hurricane's wheat beers and ales either, some of which are flavored with blueberries, pears, raspberries, and pumpkins. You and your troublesome arteries might accompany a wing-loving friend to the Hurricane in Plantation, however, where you could ingest a respectable veggie burger ($6.75) and an iced tea while your pal submits to the capable ministrations of Patty, a waitress who will cheerfully and bossily give him even better service than he deserves.
Patty brought us two trays of tiny cups of microbrews to sample (Holly Mack, Purple Haze, Abita Amber, Pumpkin Head, and our favorite, the vanilla-scented Winter Cast Ale, $4.50 each). She recommended the fine, flaky fish dip served with sliced jalapeños, tomatoes, tortilla chips, and packaged saltines ($7.95) and the Parm-garlic fries ($3.75) to tide us over while we waited for Mike Mooney to arrive. (We really did try to save him some.) She let us taste the lime habanero rub (a category 5, their hottest) before we committed to it, and she steered us to the sample plate of four kinds of chicken wings ($16.95).
I'll spare you the boneless-versus-boned chicken-wing debate except to note that some people argue that a "boneless wing" is about as far from the authentic spirit of wings as Sweet Tarts are from tarte Tatin. The boneless, breaded, and fried wings were an ideally neutral canvas on which to paint the art of the matter: the sauce. Patty waited with superhuman patience as we bickered over our choices.
Hurricane's sauce choices are overwhelming: bourbon and barbecue, teriyaki and Tuscan herb, honey mustard, honey garlic, honey balsamic, honey chipotle barbecue. Citrus, mango, raspberry, piña colada. Thai ginger. Mesquite. Sea salt and vinegar. We narrowed it down to one from each category: the mild raspberry, the medium citrus mojo, a hot Gold Rush, and the purported granddaddy of heat, a habanero lime. Our favorite was the Gold Rush, which Russo describes as "smoky, spicy honey-mustard." I liked them dipped in the blue cheese dressing while Mooney preferred the ranch. The second favorite of everyone but me was the raspberry sauce, which tasted like a fine melted jelly. Mojo, a recent invention, is a citrus marinade that tastes of oranges and lemons flecked with basil and cilantro and is also very good. And while the habanero lime rub is peppery and tart, it isn't devilish; it's yummy — although Hurricane could turn up the heat on it for masochists like me.
In the end, Patty brought us a piece of lava cake ($4.95) and four forks. By then, I'd adapted to the TVs tuned to football by unfocusing my eyes and seeing the field as abstract patterns of red and white, orange and blue — Texas playing the Broncos or something. Even after the cake, we couldn't stop eating fries until not so much as a grain of salt remained and our fingers and lips and shirts were slick with butter. They didn't have chicken-wing sandwiches on the menu yet, but Mooney still gave Hurricane a sauce-stained thumbs-up.