After successful test marketing campaigns in Atlanta and Oklahoma City, Hooters has taken their new smoked wings national. Just after Labor Day, the reastaurant chain unveiled them at select Northeast locations (Saugus MA, Shrewsbury MA and Farmingdale NY), with available kitchen space seemingly the gating factor.
The Hooters smoked wings are a little more expensive than the Hooters fried wings, but the ones I've tried have been significantly larger—possibly to compensate for not being padded with breading. No, these wings are all natural, served without breading or sauce; instead they rely on the flavors of marinade, smoke, rub and the chicken itself. Because there's no breading, no sauce and no fryolator stint, the smoked wings are being marketed as a low calorie option, with half the calories of what the traditional wings have. Just remember to skip the blue cheese if those calories count.
Barbecue purists will find some good news and some bad news here. Yes, the Hooters smoked wings are indeed smoked, and they're smoked onsite over hickory. The process starts with a 12-hour bath (I'm talking about the wings, fellas) in a proprietary marinade. They're then placed in an Alto-Shaam smoker to absorb some hickory smoke from pellets while cooking at a temperature in the 400s (higher than typical barbecue) for a duration of a little over an hour (lower than typical barbecue). Upon completion, the wings get cooled and revisit the smoker for an eight-to-ten minute finishing session with the selected rub.
All of the rubs are applied to order and applied fairly aggressively. They've cut back slightly from the original dosage based on customer feedback, but you can always request a heavier-than-normal or lighter-than-normal rub strength to your server. Smoke is more of a catalyst that amplifies the natural chicken flavor than a potent force unto itself, but it's there, even if faint.
Texas: This is the most popular flavor and the one that's the best entry point. While it's not what I think of when I think of Texas rub on barbecue, it's quite flavorful, with a nice balance of salt, manageable cayenne heat and other subtle components. Through it all, it's the intense chicken flavor in the wings that sings loudest.
Jerk: The familiar Caribbean flavoring that sometimes means sauce and sometimes means dry rub is all rub here. The heat level isn't exactly challenging, but it's enough to get your attention. More in play is the appealing fragrance in the mix of herbs and crushed seeds that are very visible in a coarse grind.
Garlic Habanero: The name sounds more formidable than the result, which brings hints of garlic and a gentle tingle that again allow the natural chicken essence to command center stage. It's a pleasant flavor that's surprisingly the most timid of the three specialty rubs, but that gentle backdrop of light heat persists.
Chesapeake: This is a rub that's been around for a while and already in use on the traditional Hooters fried wings. Since it's in the kitchen already, it's another option for your smoked wings enjoyment. Chesapeake is known for its use of Old Bay seasoning, which gets matched note-for-note with salt. If you're looking for lots of flavor without any heat, this is one to try.
Lemon Pepper: Here's another existing rub that's well known to regular fans of Hooters fried wings. It's also another option well suited for those who shun heat; the puckery lemon punch far outweighs the pepper here.
Hooters smoked wings are designed to be served with the rub only, and that's how I prefer them. But if you think of smoked wings and barbecue wings as synonymous, you can complement them with one of 18 different sauces that can be ordered on the side for a half-dollar upgrade. For best results, ask for the sauce to be heated slightly. This not only has the advantage of temperature but an improved spreadability as well.
For a spicy Buffalo style, and one that keeps those calories down, go with 911 or Three Mile Island. To stick within the barbecue realm, try Habanero BBQ or Honey BBQ. I like the contrast of General Tso (sweet with limited heat) or the spice amplification of the Cajun option, but be forewarned: as tasty as it is, Cajun brings salt amplification too.
After about a half dozen batches spread over a few visits—it's tough work, but somebody has to do it—I saw trends that are likely to repeat. The wing size is good. The smoke level is unsurprisingly low, given the short time spent with the hickory. The wing texture is surprisingly good: even though every batch is a reheat by design, it's done with precision that's ensured reliably tender meat, usually with free flowing juices. The exteriors have been a little less reliable, but those skins have been crisp a lot more often than not. The rub intensity (not to be confused with heat intensity) has satisfied on every batch but one, where it was applied a lot lighter than the rest.
1. Order the smoked wings in small batches until you find a favorite. They'll stay warmer and crisper that way, and smaller batches means your Hooters Girl comes around more often.
2. It's not something they ask, but don't be afraid to let your Hooters Girl know whether you want heavy or light rub.
3. Similarly, if you have a penchant for crisp skins, let your Hooters Girl know that too. In general, the skins came out fine for me, but a few here and there could have benefitted from a little extra time in the smoker.
The wings might be a little on the pricey side, at a little over a buck a piece, but the size and quality are mitigators.
The new smoked wings are not available on the Tuesday all-you-can-eat deal (the cooking time prohibits that), but they are included on the Monday night half-price deal diring NFL football games.
The Bottom Line
The smoke is light at best and some of the rub names are misnomers, but overall I'm pleasantly surprised by the quality of Hooters smoked wings. They're plump, tender, succulent and bursting with marinade, seasonings and a strong chicken flavor you typically don't find at other wings places. While they might not top the best smoked wings at the best barbecue joints (the top 15% or so), I'd say Hooters smoked wings deliver better taste, texture and consistency than the remaining 85% of them. They're certainly a game changer, and one of the few chain restaurant barbecue(ish) offerings that I'd go back and have again. Even if they weren't half the calories. And even if not for the... well, you know...
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