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King of wings

It's the season when cabin fever turns into March madness and this year Play is saluting the prime time platters by ditching bracketology for bucketology in a showdown of Anchorage's wings. To see who holds home court advantage, we grouped businesses into regional conferences, matching up shops competing on the same turf. Refereeing the journey down wing street are three chicken champs; local dining dynamo Josh Niva; Kevin Powell, Play designer; and Spencer Shroyer, Play editor. With no diaper dandies in the bunch, the crew opted for the second hottest options on most menus, striving for balance of taste and temperature.

The Field

Hot Mama's

Location: 3609 Arctic Blvd.

Phone: 337-4447

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday.

Wings in our order: 10

Cost: $8.99, about 90¢ a wing

Niva: A Cinderella team -- young franchise on the rise. The slipper might fit on one of these drums. A great value. Like mini-fried chicken, really. And a sneaky heat. A nice mellow burn.

Powell: The Shaquille O'neal of the field, these were more like legs than drumsticks or wings, providing the most chicken in the field. The spices infused in the breading tasted great but in the end I like my wings to have a little less meat on them.

Shroyer: These plump drumettes were fried a nice golden brown and had a seasoned flavor that might make a better matchup with the colonel's herbs and spices than the heat of some of our other contenders.

Wings & Things

Location: 701 W. 36 Ave.

Phone: 277-WING (9464)

Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, closed Sunday.

Wings in our order: 14

Cost: $8.95, about 64¢ a wing

Niva: The UCLA of the Anchorage wing game -- most championships, most beloved. Though hasn't recaptured its once great standing after disappearing a few seasons ago. Once jilted fans have returned to the fold, but are these wings championship caliber? Tiny wings, nearly-overcooked -- firm. Tossed in a cayenne-based spice rub, though not as rich or thick as the previous W&T wings. A dull, slow heat.

Powell: These are the Michael Jordan of wings. After years at the top, they abruptly disappeared (possibly to play baseball?) and I was left with a hole in my heart, er, stomach. Others tried to take their place, but just like Jordan, they triumphantly returned and all is forgiven. I'm a fan of the deep-fried, then sauced technique and these wings rule that roost.

Shroyer: I may have missed their original glory days, but I can see why this shop has plenty of banners hanging in the rafters. These wings may be a little scrawny, but that tangy blend of spices and a heaping portion more than make up for it.

City Diner

Location: 3000 Minnesota Drive

Phone: 277-CITY(2489)

Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday.

Wings in our order: 10

Cost: $9.95, about $1 a wing

Niva: These wings are a wild card, completely different than anything else in the field. A interesting take -- spicy-sweet glaze over a thinly crusted wing, with chopped nuts added for texture. This wing is the most unique, but it doesn't knock your socks off, especially in the heat department. More sweet than spicy.

Powell: I equated these wings to Tim Duncan. The classiest of the bunch, they are more like fried chicken. The cilantro and crushed peanuts were proof they came from noble roots and the Thai sauce provided a nice, unique sweetness that eventually led to some fine heat.

Shroyer: The thick breading and syrupy coating put these wings in a different conference. I like them best as a milder counterpoint to a traditional hot wing.

Big Al's

Location: 3807 Spenard Road

Phone: 522-3388

Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday.

Wings in our order: 11

Cost: $8.95, about 81¢ a wing

Niva: Very simple wings, pretty small. Almost the same as W&T, though more intense of a spice rub and even a tad sweeter due to the BBQ sauce they are tossed around in. These aren't the hottest wings on the block, but they are nearly sweat-inducing.

Powell: Colorful and spicy these wings are the Kobe Bryant of the contest. They telegraph their intentions from the start, they bring the heat. Same approach as W&T, but not quite as refined.

Shroyer: I agree, these wings owe some flavor to W&T, but they pack more bite. Too bad it comes in an extra-thick mix that left even my mouth feeling coated.

Peanut Farm

Location: 5227 Old Seward Highway

Phone: 563-3283

Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Wings in our order: 8

Cost: $10, about $1.25 a wing

Niva: If Wings & Things is UCLA, Peanut Farm is North Carolina -- the new power in the game. PF has wings that span the spectrum and are similar to original Buffalo wings. Seemingly simple wing -- deep fried, tossed in a vinegar-based hot sauce. Though Peanut Farm has a distinctive touch to theirs -- cayenne and some spice I can't put my sticky fingers on. And the four-alarm must have some habanero because the heat is intense and there are little seeds floating around. These things even look hot -- a deep glowing orange -- but not so intense that the heat overwhelms the flavor. A great combination of heat and flavor, and the wings are much bigger than W&T. These are easily the hottest wings in the field.

Powell: Hot, hot, hot, these wings deliver like Steve Nash. The presence of pepper seeds in the sauce should have been warning enough, but I didn't listen and these traditional Buffalo wings reeked havoc on my taste buds and lips.

Shroyer: The true burners of the bunch, these were the first wings to leave my lips tingly and my forehead sweaty. While they hint at a Buffalo flavor (think Frank's Red Hot), they still have their own kicked-up mix of spice.

Winky's Wings

Location: 9191 Old Seward Highway

Phone: 279-4647

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday, 2 p.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Wings in our order: 10

Cost: $8.95, about 90¢ a wing

Niva: This spice-based rub is intense and incredibly salty. The salty flavor smacks you in the face immediately and almost turns you away from the wings. Then some flavor kicks in and then a warm tingle of heat. A decent wing. Though the salt is too much and the wings are probably the smallest in our field and overcooked -- a few were as stringy as jerky.

Powell: Like Dwyane Wade, Winky's uses the same techniques as other greats in the league (Wings & Things and Big Al's) with similar results. The spices are good, there's a little more salt and the heat is middle of the road.

Shroyer: I dug the salty spice and lingering heat of these thickly coated wings, but at times it was overpowering. Even though they were on the boney side, I was impressed by this newcomer.

Eddie's Sports Bar

Location: 6300 Old Seward Highway

Phone: 563-3970

Hours: 10 a.m. to 2:30 Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Wings in our order: 7

Cost: $9.99, about $1.43 a wing

Niva: In a field of contenders, these wings are pretenders. Like a .500 team playing in a tough conference, this wing probably took the bracket spot away from a more-worthy wing. This wing looks straight out of the freezer aisle at Costco. The wing has a thin, damp crust to it, then coated in Buffalo sauce. They look too perfect and tastes too bland.

Powell: These wings reminded me of Dennis Rodman. They had lots of color but got old real fast.

Shroyer: This was a disappointing bunch; blandly breaded and flimsy in flavor. A sharper scouting report would have kept them from the tourney.

Long Branch

Location: 1737 E. Dimond Circle

Phone: 349-4142

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Monday through Sunday.

Wings in our order: 10

Cost: $10.75, about $1.08 a wing

Niva: These are the crunchiest wings in the bunch -- flaky, firm fried wings. But despite the heavy coating, the huge wings are juicy inside. A great balance. And somewhere in that flaky crust is a jalapeno seasoning that make these things burn your tongue and reach for a refreshment.

Powell: With a different look than the rest of the field these breaded, deep fried wings are a Lebron James-like force to be reckoned with. The jalapenos used in the breading provide a different kind of heat that starts small but finishes strong without going over the top. The texture was also above the rim, providing an unparalleled crunch.

Shroyer: Big and fried, these wings are surrounded by a crunchy shell. Inside the meat stayed tender, with the jalapeno flavor so subtle sometimes I forgot it was there.

First round

Elite Ate

West bracket

City Diner vs. Big Al's

Niva: City Diner has pizzazz, but Big Al's has the reliable flavor that wins going away.

Powell: City Diner's sweet heat broke Big Al's full court press in my mind.

Shroyer: The Diner's got a great novelty wing, but Big Al's is my winner.

2-1: Al's advances

Spenard bracket

Hot Mama's vs. Wings & Things

Niva: Hot Mama's lineup of big drums might be a contender in a fried chicken contest, but the wing game is all about finger-licking flavor and even the new version of W&T has flavor for days.

Powell: The dynasty has returned and W&T just has too many weapons for Hot Mama's. From top to bottom, the secret recipe, number of wings, technique and the blue cheese sauce are tough to beat.

Shroyer: I really enjoyed Mama's wings, but W&T takes this one with its top shelf blend of spices.

3-0: W&T Advances

Old Seward bracket

Peanut Farm vs. Eddie's

Niva: A perennial favorite versus a pretender -- it's a blowout. Peanut Farm rules.

Powell: Eddie's is outmatched as the Peanut Farm's traditional approach is as solid as they come. On both sides of the court; flavor and heat, they reign.

Shroyer: The Farm kicks Eddie's back to the bench in this one-sided showdown.

3-0: Peanut Farm Advances

Southside bracket

Long Branch vs. Winky's

Niva: Winky had a chance, but outplays itself by going out of bounds with its salt content. Long Branch's big, hot and original take on the wing beats Winky's by a beak.

Powell: The Long Branch fills up the lane with big, thick wings that excel in crunch time. We're sad to see this year's Cinderella, Winky's, get eliminated, but we know they'll be back.

Shroyer: This was a close bout, but in the end Winky's is knocked out by the amazing crunch of the Long Branch.

3-0: Long Branch advances

Final Fowl

Big Al's vs. W&T

Niva: If you tossed both of these batches of wings together, you'd have a hard time telling them apart. Both are spice-based takes on the original Wings & Things recipe. Only Big Al's does it better -- a little bit bigger, a little bit sweeter, a little bit hotter and a little less overcooked. Big Al's in an upset.

Powell: A matchup of epic proportions. They share the same game plan, but W&T has been here before and they prevail by doing the small things right.

Shroyer: This really was a marquee matchup. I liked Big Al's slow burning flavor, but it laid it too thick. W&T delivered without coating my mouth.

2-1: W&T advances

Peanut Farm vs. Long Branch

Niva: Size is a wash -- both are big wings. And Peanut Farm, or no other wing for that matter, can match Long Branch's texture. But this match is won with heat and flavor, and Peanut Farm balances both -- an intense heat with a tangy Buffalo flavor -- better than Long Branch's slow burn can. Peanut Farm wins.

Powell: The Long Branch put the fab five on the court, unique jalapeno taste, crunchy coating, moist chicken, nice size and, did I mention the crunchy coating? While I appreciate the Farm riding their wave of heat this far, I've jumped on the bandwagon with the other Long Branch fans.

Shroyer: I agree with Josh when it comes to Long Branch's out-of-this-world crunch, but the flavorful flames from the Farm's wings just make them too hot to hold back.

2-1: Peanut Farm advances

Chomp-ionship

Peanut Farm vs. W&T

Niva: In a meeting of two local powerhouses, Peanut Farm overwhelms W&T in size, with meaty wings to W&T's tiny team. Peanut Farm does a better job on the inside, frying their wings so that there is a firm texture on the outside, but juicy meat inside, while W&T tend to cook their wings to the point of being stringy. The Farm's heat overwhelms W&T's spice-based attack and does so with the tangy flavor that Buffalo wing traditionalists love. Peanut Farm makes it look easy -- that inside-outside combo of heat and flavor. W&Ts might be the people's champ, but Peanut Farm has the best hot wings in town.

Powell: Two different approaches to the game, the traditional vinegar-based Buffalo wings that bring the raw heat, and the deep fried goodness that relies on a secret blend of spices and heat. I'm a fan of the latter and I'm hoping W&T can reclaim the title they walked away from almost two years ago.

Shroyer: While Peanut Farm wins the battle of heat (just thinking about them makes me bead up), W&T's mix of spices delivers a punch of flavor that stays on my mind for days. In the end, it's their all-around mix of juicy meat and unmatched burn that have me picking the Peanut Farm to cut down the nets.

2-1: Peanut Farm wins the crown

There can only be one wing king and the Peanut Farm came away with the crown. While Kevin Powell may never concede his top pick, the buzzer has sounded on this taste tourney. The judges have spoken and now they're asking for antacids.