While the end of March Madness spills into April with the NCAA men's basketball Final Four starting Saturday, Play Magazine spent the previous bracket-busting weeks concocting its own tasty tournament. The challenge: whittle a field of eight hot wings restaurants down to one champion, Anchorage's Lord of the Wings.
Play has taken up the challenge before. In 2009, the Peanut Farm was declared King of Wings, and the same March Madness-inspired process was applied to last year's Burger Bracket, which saw the Long Branch taking top honors in an even more contentious tourney.
But in the four years since the Peanut Farm's title, a new recruiting class has emerged. The playing field has changed, so does Peanut Farm's game still hold up to stiff competition?
The selection committee had a markedly easier job than with last year's burger tournament by the sheer virtue of hot wings being on fewer menus. That said, it's impossible to avoid a few snubs, and some might take exception with the omissions of Humpy's or Moose's Tooth. We don't mean to cause any friction over the chicken they're fixin', but our elite eight was narrowed to the places where hot wings make up a larger chunk of the options.
Putting "wings" in the name of your restaurant helped solidify a few bids, which is how we ended up with Wild Wings 'n Things, Buffalo Wild Wings, Wings 'n Things and Hood Wings. Of course, Peanut Farm is here to defend its title, and our at-large bids went to Straight Out of Philly and Palermos Pizza and Phillys.
After deciding on the first round matchups, six taste-testers sampled the most traditional-style wing on the menu, usually an order of medium. If the game went to overtime, I stepped in as the seventh and deciding vote, and there were a couple buzzer beaters.
And just like in the real March Madness, sometimes the best teams didn't bring their A-game. There were some surprises, and some fans are going to complain about the officiating. Those are the breaks of the game.
5227 Old Seward Highway, 563-3283, wemustbenuts.com
The 2009 champs stick to an old-school game -- no small ball here. The Farm uses size to overpower the competition, and the vinegary sauce makes things slippery for opposing defenses (i.e. napkins).
Straight Out of Philly
210 E. Fireweed Lane, 569-1515, straightoutofphilly.com
Like Wichita State in this year's Final Four, Straight Out of Philly had the chance to come out of a quiet conference and make some noise. For those making predictions, this was a popular dark horse contender.
Wings 'n Things
701 W. 36th Ave., 277-9464
We compared Wings 'n Things to UCLA last time, and the analogy still holds. They're the most storied wings institution in town, but the competition is stiffer these days. There have been some shake-ups since that early dynasty, but Wings 'n Things is still a standard-bearer.
9191 Old Seward Highway, 279-4647, winkyswings.com
Removed a bit from the higher profile competition, Winky's was a relative unknown, and one with the potential of making a Cinderella run. The saltier dry rub added a new-school component, and proved a benefit when it came to -- ahem -- crunch time.
Buffalo Wild Wings
3400 C St., 563-9464, buffalowildwings.com
The newcomer is the Duke of the field -- they enjoy a devoted fan base, but there's no shortage of haters. And while plenty of on-lookers probably wanted to see the national chain upset by a team with less recruiting reach, their diverse game had the potential to overwhelm the opponent.
Palermos Pizza and Phillys
6406 Debarr Road, 334-3354, palermopizza4you.com
Palermos was our bubble team, another underdog that was well-versed in the fundamentals of the game and posed the possibility of an intriguing upset.
Northway Mall, 3101 Penland Parkway, 891-2274, hoodwingsak.net
Given the playful name and menu, it's easy to peg Hood Wings as the party school of the bunch, but it's a love of the game that lands them in the elite eight. And if you're down for some street-ball, their Super Novas offer some next-level heat.
Wild Wings 'n Things
1102 N. Muldoon Road, 694-4444, wildwingsak.com
Wild Wings 'n Things offered a confusing matchup, not least of which is the fact that the name sounds like a Wings 'n Things / Buffalo Wild Wings mashup, and the small franchise is another relative newcomer looking to recruit Anchorage diners.
Peanut Farm vs. Straight Out of Philly
This was a classic case of a game being closer than the score. All six votes circled the rim a few times before falling in the Farm's favor. Straight Out of Philly dominated in texture, but fell short in flavor.
Peanut Farm wins 6-0
Wings 'n Things vs. Winky's
This David and Goliath matchup shocked the crowd. Most chocked it up to an off-game from the favorites, but Winky's held their own, moving on to face Peanut Farm in a game of contrasting styles.
Winky's wins 5-1
Buffalo Wild Wings vs. Palermos
This was a sloppy game, and while it wasn't pretty, B-Dubs left an indelible impression, a slight burn and a few stains.
BWW wins 4-2
Hood Wings vs. Wild Wings
There was no clear favorite going into this one, and there wasn't a clear victor coming out of overtime. In was one of a few showdowns of crunchy (Hood Wings) vs. saucy (Wild Wings). Nobody choked under pressure, but the first of the tourney's two tiebreaking votes went to Wild Wings.
Wild Wings wins 4-3
Winky's vs. Peanut Farm
This one was contentious, with supporters on both sides questioning some calls. Our judges were split on a fundamental difference in the way one wants to see the game played: Winky's finesse or the Farm's domineering presence. After another tiebreaker vote, the defending champs survived and advanced.
Peanut Farm wins 4-3
Buffalo Wild Wings vs. Wild Wings
While it wasn't as closely contested as the other semifinal matchup, this was another instance of a misleading score. No team scorched the competition, but Buffalo Wild Wings packed the most heat, and that extra spice carried it to the finals.
BWW wins 6-0
Peanut Farm vs. Buffalo Wild Wings
The Duke of the drumsticks took the title, and our guess is plenty fans aren't happy about the hometown team going down. Buffalo Wild Wings weren't the unanimous favorite -- a couple on-the-fence votes falling the other direction and they would have been eliminated in the first round -- but they're cutting down the nets this year.
BWW wins 5-1
Disagree with the way our bracket played out? Plenty have already let us know by voting in our readers' bracket. There was a slight difference in that field of eight because of a pretty big oversight on our part: Big Al's Wings and Wings was included instead of Palermos even though Big Al's is no longer open.
Maybe voters miss Big Al's, but some votes might have been cast in protest -- Buffalo Wild Wings lost in the first round to a restaurant that hasn't been open in about three years.
Readers also opted for Hood Wings over Wild Wings and voted for them again over the ghost of Big Al's. Peanut Farm beat Straight Out of Philly by a single vote, but then fell to Winky's in the second round.
That leaves readers the choice of Winky's or Hood Wings in the final. Pick your favorite of the two by casting your vote. We'll announced the readers' choice champ on Thursday.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Wild Wings 'n Things as a national chain restaurant. It is a locally owned franchise.
Lord of the Wings readers' poll
By Matt Sullivan