The battle raged hot and heavy at All American Food Fights’ sixth annual Asheville Wing War on March 5. This year’s sold-out event drew the largest crowd yet with nearly 1,000 attendees converging on the Crowne Plaza Resort for the festivities.
Each year, about a dozen restaurants go head to head, each offering both traditional Buffalo wings and a unique, freestyle specialty wing. The entries are sampled by a panel of local judges as well as attendees who decide people’s choice winners.
This year, two businesses dominated both the judges’ and people’s choice awards: Newcomer the Montford Pullup captured attendees’ hearts in both categories for a double people’s choice win, and the judges awarded Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Cuisine food truck first place in both categories.
The judges this year were Asheville Citizen-Times food writer Mackensy Lunsford, Isa’s Bistro chef Duane Fernandez, WLOS reporter Evan Donavan, Ashevegas food writer and AVL Food Fans podcast host Stu Helm and yours truly. As in years past, the judges did a blind tasting, but in a new twist, both categories were brought out simultaneously rather than being judged one at a time. Judges deliberated on a 10-point scale and selected the winners after tasting an exhausting gauntlet of 26 wings.
For the judging, Wing War founder and organizer Kelly Denson defined a traditional wing as “a chicken wing section — flapper or drummet — that is deep-fried and coated in vinegar-based hot sauce and butter.” Participants were allowed to add to that base, but Denson’s definition was the judges’ standard for the Traditional category.
Competitors this year included the returning champion from last year, Mojo Kitchen, which swept the 2016 people’s choice and judges’ choice for best specialty wing year with a ramps and sumac recipe. Last year’s judges’ choice winner for traditional wings, Foggy Mountain Brewpub, and the people’s choice champion in the Traditional category, Moe’s Original BBQ, also returned to battle it out against a slew of newcomers, including Luella’s BBQ, the Montford Pullup, Southern Porch, Mountain View Restaurant, Out of the Blue Peruvian Food Truck, Salvage Station, Chupacabra, Overlook Restaurant, Chop House and the previous champion of All American Food Fights’ WNC Battle of the Burger, Farm to Fender Café.
The crowd’s favorite seemed obvious from the long line that stretched from Montford Pullup’s counter throughout the duration of the event. The rookie came in swinging with a signature flair for the unusual. Known for experimentation and quality, the gas station-based sandwich shop dealt out a black-and-mild Buffalo wing (yes, like the cigar), as well as a lemonade-based specialty wing to grab the people’s choice honors in both categories.
Living up to its name, Out of the Blue Peruvian swept in to nab the top slot with judges in both Traditional and Specialty wings. Offering perfectly smoked wings finished with a little green salsa, it was the crispy skins and perfect seasoning that lead Out of the Blue to well over a 10-point victory with judges in the Traditional category. The food truck snagged top honors in the judges’ Specialty category with its smoked Pisgah Pale Ale Flying Pig Wing.
Chop House took second place in the Traditional category with a Buffalo Thai chili recipe and slipped in at third — albeit with some deliberation among the judges — for a specialty offering of bacon and maple wings. (One judge commented, “It’s like chicken and waffles, but without the waffles.”) Luella’s BBQ took second place in the Specialty category. In the Traditional category, Farm to Fender, which finished its wings with a delicate topping of microgreens, found its way back to the podium to collect third prize.
The judges scores ran the gamut of highs and lows. Non-winning entries included everything from miso-glazed umami bombs to fruit-and-spice concoctions to dry-rubbed varieties.
“I’ve always said that the wing levels the playing field for restaurants,” says Denson. “I feel like it is a simple meat that you are able to really dress up and be creative with, and so a chef’s skills can really shine with a chicken wing because it is a really blank canvas. You can smoke it, you can fry it, you can brine it — it’s amazing what you can do with a simple chicken wing.”
Denson notes that the contest seems to bring to the surface certain burgeoning crazes that run in the undercurrent of food culture. “Food competitions like this really magnify trends in food,” she explains. “Every year you end up seeing the different restaurants doing the same types of things without even realizing it. It’s not like they are copying each other, it just happens.” Last year there were half a dozen specialty offerings that implemented honey; in another previous competition, it was Asian flavors, she says. But this year it was fruit: Peach, pineapple, lime and lemon all made appearances, and not always in the most glowing of fashions.
“When you have too many ingredients, I think that is when you know you’ve gone over the edge,” says Denson, who has seen a lot of winners come and go over the years in the Asheville Wing War and WNC Battle of the Burger. “This goes for the burger competition and the Wing War: Stick with the classics; they work for a reason. You try to fancy it up, and it just doesn’t work sometimes. You just shoot yourself in the foot.” Although the unexpected sweep from the far-out flavors of Montford Pullup’s wings may call that logic into question.
Winners of the 2017 Asheville Wing War
Traditional: Montford Pullup
Specialty: Montford Pullup
First place — Out of the Blue Peruvian
Second place — Chop House
Third place —Farm to Fender
First place — Out of the Blue Peruvian
Second place — Luella’s BBQ
Third place — Chop House