Behold, Chicago WingFest 2013. If you’re a fan of chicken wings, this is the place to be. Held this year in the Bailey Auditorium on Washington Blvd in Chicago, Illinois, the event featured 20 local restaurants serving up their own renditions of chicken wings to the masses. And I must emphasize “masses”. This was my first year attending, and the fest was a bit of a madhouse. Why wouldn’t it be? We’re talking chicken wings, people.
The first Chicago WingFest was held in 2000 and has grown in popularity over the years. Tickets were sold out almost immediately, snatched up by scalpers and distributed to eBay and Craigslist by profiteers who recognize the high demand. It was almost as difficult to get WingFest tickets as it was to get Cubs tickets for my wife’s birthday.
Lucky for me, a friend of mine, knowing my intense love for all things spicy, got hold of 5 tickets and invited me along. The day began with a ride into the city where we happily forked over $5 for parking in the event parking lot. We arrived at 12:50, with the event beginning at 1 pm, and the lot was nearly full where tailgaters were closing up their tailgates and readying to head inside. NOTE TO SELF: Next year, bring beer and tailgate beforehand. It could add to the fun!
The 5 of us jumped in line where we herded through the doors, received our hand stamps and waited in the downstairs bar for the main event to begin. Once those doors were opened, a bit of pandemonium ensued. The hoards of starving wing lovers crammed into the event room and eagerly clutched for wings from the 20 different restaurants set up in ordered stations. The people at this fest were certainly not shy. We were pushed, trampled, bumped and dripped on in every turn as the crowds swelled, but it was all in good fun.
The atmosphere was a friendly one, albeit hungry. You’d think the world might be coming to an end and everyone was stocking up on chicken wings for the remainder of days. I admit to skipping breakfast that morning, making room to consume as many wings as possible, but I was amazed at the quantity some people can consume. But hey, I do not judge. Have you seen me with jalapeno poppers or crab claws?
There was a nice variety of hot wings of various heat levels and sauce types, all competing for top prizes in 4 different categories: Mild, Hot, Barbecue and Exotic. I did my best to sample them all, but it was rough going, considering the attendance of 2500 people snatching up wings as quickly as possible. There was no shortage of wings, only a shortage of room at the tables.
In the group I attended with, none of us found any particular wing sauce that was to die for, but I did love the wings from “Gators Wing Shack”, a bar and grill near my old stomping grounds. Also, “Tap House Grill” whipped up a Habanero-Ghost Pepper sauce that was high on flavor, and really high on heat. As I passed through the crowd with watery eyes after having eaten a couple of those wings, a number of people pointed fingers at me with pure glee, shouting, “Dude, you just ate at Tap House!” Yes, my friend, I did. But I do love the heat.
As we wandered from table to table, fighting inward for a fistful of wings, rumors swirled that the event would be held in a larger facility next year, possibly Soldier Field, though I find that doubtful. Still, it would help to move to a bigger place to accommodate for the growing popularity. We also enjoyed 2 different wing eating contest events. I felt sorry for the female wing eating champ from 2012 who, this year, lost the contents of her stomach before the judging could finish. There is always next year.
We took a breather and headed back up around 3:30 pm for another round of eating, but by then the event had thinned out considerably, and the quality of the wings had gone down. They had been sitting in warmers or out on the tables on paper plates, not fresh from the fryers. Alas, we left, still full.
If you decide to attend the Chicago WingFest in the future, I’d like to share with you what I learned. Heed this advice and you’ll have a much better experience.
Tip #1: Dress Appropriately. This place is crowded. Did I mention that? When you have this many people in close proximity trying to scarf down saucy hot wings, you’re bound to get dripped on. Don’t wear your best clothes, and don’t wear white unless you want to show off your sauciness. There were many who did. See below.
Tip #2: Bring a Wing Container. When you walk up to the crowded tables, the servers hand you a wing or 2 in a small paper serving dish, but once you’re done eating, you have to search about for a garbage can to toss away the bones before moving to the next table. I tried reusing my paper dish a few times, but it didn’t work well. A number of smart attendees, clearly veterans of fests past, brought their own large plastic bowls or containers. Those with a height advantage simply reached over the crowds with their bowls while servers dutifully dropped wings inside, like passing out candy at Halloween. Smart folks!
Tip #3: Bring Paper Towels. Sure, there were paper towels provided, but when you’re stuck in the middle of the crowd, chowing near the the garbage cans, you need to clean yourself up. And frequently. I wound up begging for napkins from those who brought their own, and they happily shared, but you might want to bring some for yourself.
Tip #4: You Can’t Take it With You. I count this as advice because, for reasons beyond me, I saw multiple people stopped at the door trying to carry through large plastic baggies jammed with hot wings. Don’t they know wings don’t reheat very well? Were they bringing them home for the family to share? Were they saving them for lunch during the week? I have no idea, but keep this in mind. Fill up your bellies inside, or find a way to hide your bag at a minimum, though I do not condone the swiping of hot wings.
This guy embodies the spirit of Chicago WingFest. Note the Tyvek suit, towel for hand wiping, and large plastic container able to accommodate a number of chicken wings, allowing for hands-free eating, which also helps when drinking beer. This man is an obvious veteran.
If you’e like to learn more about the Chicago WingFest: http://wingfest.net