August 10, 2020

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On a wing and a prayer

Pass the Pepto: city's top joints serve up wings so hot, you'll beg for mercy

Here’s a riddle: what food item can make you cry, often comes in baskets, and is usually fried?

The answer: the chicken wing.

Indeed, there are plenty of Winnipeg joints where one can wolf down wings. Yes, most of them offer the pub favourite coated in some spicy sauces — usually called something like "burning" or "blazing" or "industrial strength" or "inferno."

There are, however, a few spots around the city offering wings so hot they’ll challenge even the most courageous chili-pepper challengers.

Chris (no last name given) shows off a fresh batch of Death Wings at Little Bones Wings on Regent Ave. West. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Chris (no last name given) shows off a fresh batch of Death Wings at Little Bones Wings on Regent Ave. West. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hot wings are trendy these days, perhaps in part due to First We Feast’s popular weekly YouTube series Hot Ones, where host Sean Evans interviews celebrities while the famous folk eat wings coated in sauces that reach the millions on the Scoville scale (which measures the ‘hotness’ of chili peppers and anything derived from them.)

St. James arcade bar Underdogs has recently added the very same sauces that have made Gordon Ramsay pound Pepto-Bismol, Shia LaBoeuf shed a tear, and Guy Fieri go nearly silent.

Quite a few customers come specifically to try the sauces on the show, Underdogs general manager Brad Michalenko said on a recent Tuesday mid-afternoon, coincidentally, one of three weekly wing specials (Thursday in addition to Tuesday, from 4 p.m. to close, and all day Sunday.)

The two hottest sauces of the 10 — "Da’ Bomb Beyond Insanity," clocking in at 136,000 Scoville units, and "The Last Dab," clocking in at 2 million — come in orders of just two wings each.

"I can’t see anyone getting through a whole pound of them," Michalenko laughed.

Underdogs serves so many orders of its Last Dab wings, it has trouble keeping the key ingredient — a sauce made with a cross-bred Pepper X — in stock, despite usingo nnly a couple drops per serving. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Underdogs serves so many orders of its Last Dab wings, it has trouble keeping the key ingredient — a sauce made with a cross-bred Pepper X — in stock, despite usingo nnly a couple drops per serving. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Michalenko, a lover of hot sauces, has tried both. He described Da’ Bomb as "pure hot" and having a spice that "hits right away." The Last Dab, on the other hand, he described as having a better flavour with a little sweetness and a spice that lingers.

"Everyone has a different spice tolerance and everyone wants to see where they're at on that." – Underdogs general manager Brad Michalenko on the pride some people take in eating insanely hot food

"It is still an insanely hot wing, it just doesn’t hit right you right off the bat like Da’ Bomb," he said of the latter.

Wing challenges between friends go down frequently at Underdogs these days. "A couple of days ago, we had a table of eight guys in here all doing Da’ Bomb, because it’s the hottest ones we had in stock, and the reactions were from just crying and chugging milk to other guys saying ‘it’s not so bad,’" Michalenko said as an example.

The Last Dab — made with a cross-bred capsicum called "Pepper X" — is in such high demand Underdogs is having trouble keeping it in stock despite using only a few drops per order. It’s a small-batch offering that costs $20 American per 148 millilitre bottle and another $16 to ship to Canada. It’s only available online and there’s a max of two bottles per purchase.

"Everyone has a different spice tolerance and everyone wants to see where they’re at on that," Michalenko said, adding he "100 per cent" believes people get a perverse sense of pride from being able to stomach spicy stuff.

Wings at Little Bones in Transcona.</p>

Wings at Little Bones in Transcona.

When asked if he could get one celebrity into Underdogs to do the Hot Ones challenge, Michalenko said "it’d be a dream" to see what Winnipeg wrestler Chris Jericho could handle.

Michalenko would also like to hold a challenge night, perhaps featuring some local celebs, where anyone could come and eat the wings in order of ascending spiciness just like on the show.

Moving from St. James to West Broadway fried-chicken hotspot Magic Bird (located inside live-music joint the Handsome Daughter), head chef "Cold" Mike O’Connell has a wicked concoction that bears his name.

You can tell Cold Mike’s Hot Sauce is serious business just by looking at the chunky, cross-armed, (cross-winged?) and mohawked chicken that graces the bottle’s label.

The persimmon-coloured sauce is made with a blend of roasted and fresh Scotch bonnets and dried Carolina Reapers, O’Connell explained. It also contains garlic, ginger, honey, and rice wine vinegar.

One of the hottest sauces out there, Da Bomb, beyond Insanity, is the second hottest wing available at Underdogs, but customers and staff all agree that its actually hotter then the Last Dab sauce which is at the top of the list. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p></p>

One of the hottest sauces out there, Da Bomb, beyond Insanity, is the second hottest wing available at Underdogs, but customers and staff all agree that its actually hotter then the Last Dab sauce which is at the top of the list. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

"The whole thing probably comes in around 1.7 (million) to two million Scovilles, but that’s just an estimate," O’Connell said. "I’m a chef, not a scientist."

O’Connell says all the staff at Magic Bird are big "pepper-heads" and knew he had to make his own super-spicy sauce as soon as he added wings to the menu. He also bottles the sauce for those who want it in their fridges at home.

You can get your wings coated in the sauce (pro-tip, wings are on special on Tuesdays) or, if you dare to dip your strips, curly fries, or traditional bone-in bird, you can get it on the side. O’Connell recommends the latter for first-timers.

"The feedback has been great from the die-hard pepper-heads but it’s definitely too much for some people," O’Connell said. "I’ve had friends come in and try some and have to give up after two wings."

O’Connell creatively compares his concoction to a hardcore song — apt, as the Handsome Daughter is a live-music hotspot.

Underdog’s Da Bomb wings are so hot, a serving is two.</p>

Underdog’s Da Bomb wings are so hot, a serving is two.

"It hits you with some heat right off the bat then goes into a breakdown and you get the sweetness and the garlic and ginger notes," he said. "And just when you think you’re safe, the mosh part comes in and you get all the really intense heat from the Reapers and bonnets that just pummel you for a while."

O’Connell says his sauce pairs well with more than just chicken; he likes to shake some into ramen or onto fried fish. He even topped rattlesnake with it over the summer, which he called "amazing."

J.C. Ferber is one local "hot-head" who won the battle — but just barely — with O’Connell’s sauce.

The photographer and media consultant recalled the time he doused "scorcher" chicken strips — Magic Bird’s chicken comes with four dry-spice options, with "scorcher" being the hottest — with the sauce in what he called an "experiment."

"Eating the chicken on its own was no big deal, having done it before, but the addition of the sauce coated my entire tongue and throat in a fiery heat that rapidly began to build and build with no sign of stopping," Ferber explained. "I could feel it in my face and in my chest."

Fresh Mamba Six Hot Sauce mixed with a dab of Mad Dog 357 Pepper Extract are two of the main ingredients that make up the sinister Little Bones Death Sauce. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Fresh Mamba Six Hot Sauce mixed with a dab of Mad Dog 357 Pepper Extract are two of the main ingredients that make up the sinister Little Bones Death Sauce. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

After downing half a beer, he was able to slay the spicy strips.

"It was an ordeal, but I can say I did it," he said. "As a hot-head, I take it as a personal challenge to see how far I can push the limits of my body."

He said he’d do it again, but next time with a group of friends.

Over in Transcona, if you want to try the spiciest of Little Bones Wings’ 75 flavours, you’ll have to prove you can handle it by conquering a warm-up wing.

All those wanting to take on a basket of "Death" wings — which breaks the Regent Avenue restaurant’s "spicemometer" with a ranking of 10 out of five lightning bolts — have to eat either the "A Near Death Experience" or "Death Drop" wings as a prerequisite. In the past, challengers actually had to sign a waiver.

Magic Bird’s Cold Mikes Hot Sauce Wings.</p>

Magic Bird’s Cold Mikes Hot Sauce Wings.

The seven wings are tossed with 3rd Degree Sauce, habanero, and chili flakes and then injected with pure capsicum extract ranked at 6 million Scoville units.

"The wing came to existence when A Near Death Experience’s pride was challenged by some customers that have inhumane tolerance to spice, (and) told me that they ‘weren’t really spicy,’" general manager and founder Alex Goertzen explained.

"I think, like most entrepreneurs, I enjoy a challenge. You tell me I can’t make something too spicy, I accept, and most of the time I win," he bragged.

A few customers a day — and a few regulars Goertzen called "genetic anomalies" — order the "Death" wings.

"I love to watch people eat them, but sometimes feel terrible, because a lot of people can’t comprehend spicy at this level, and they don’t know what they are in for," he said.

A plate of chicken fingers, curly fries, and home made honey dill sauce from Magic Bird Fried Chicken. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

A plate of chicken fingers, curly fries, and home made honey dill sauce from Magic Bird Fried Chicken. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jack Roeder, one such individual, said he’s "never had anything so spicy that it almost hurt to eat" despite being a longtime lover of spicy foods due to the endorphin rush they can give.

After confirming with his server the kitchen had milk on hand to douse the inevitable inferno, he ate five of seven and gave one each to two friends.

"One of them took one bite and was coughing the whole night, while the other ate the entire wing and wasn’t too bothered," he recalled. "I remember sweating profusely and going to the bathroom to wipe my sweat multiple times."

Upon asking for the milk, his server returned and told him they were out.

"I was devastated," Roeder said.

He ended up cooling down with ice cream, but said he wouldn’t do it again.

When asked why folks such as Roeder and Ferber subject themselves to such punishment, Goertzen answered the question with another question.

"Why do people jump out planes or crave the pain from a tattoo?" he posited. "I think it’s a combination of the feeling of victory when you complete the challenge, mixed with some subconscious sense of survival. They’re happy to still be alive after the natural threat has ran its course."

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