People love chicken wings.

If there were ever any doubt, consider that last year the first Hot Wing Cook-Off Challenge, at the Marriott Residence Inn in Portland, sold out 400 tickets on a Thursday night and had to turn away 75 more hungry chicken wing fans at the door.

This year Dan Bolduc, the organizer of the event, has moved it to a Saturday, June 22, at Ocean Gateway. “Our capacity is 800,” he said. “I’d like to do 600.”

Tickets for this 21-plus event are $20, and that buys you all the wings you can eat. The challenge is a fundraiser for Make-a-Wish Maine, and the goal is to raise $6,000 to make a child’s wish come true.   

The challenge is happening on a wildly popular weekend for food events. The Festival, the international craft beer gathering sponsored by Shelton Bros., will be making beer geeks swoon on Friday and Saturday. The annual Taste of the Nation dinner, the largest fundraiser of the year for Share Our Strength Maine (see related story), takes place Sunday at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport.   

Bolduc said he purposefully planned to have the Hot Wing Cook-Off Challenge the same day as The Festival so that when people are done drinking beer at the Portland Co. Complex they can wander down to eat some wings. The Festival sessions are 1 to 5 p.m. and 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sat urday; the Hot Wing Challenge will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. (There will be beer at the hot wing party too, of course – $4 drafts of Shipyard, Sea Dog and Coors Light.)   

New this year will be a hot wing eating contest at 6 p.m. There are only 10 spots available, and so far only one is filled. Javiar Gorriti, a local sports radio host, has agreed to take one of the seats.    There’s an entry fee of $20 for the wing eating contest, but the person who eats two pounds of chicken wings the fastest will win $100. And don’t worry – they’ll be using a mild sauce for the contest.   

Up to 30 restaurants are expected to participate in the Hot Wing Cook-Off this year. They’ll be preparing wings in four different categories: People’s Choice, Best Traditional Wing Sauce, Most Creative Wing Sauce and Hottest of the Hot.   

Congress Street Bar & Grill won the People’s Choice award last year with their Spicy Thai Barbecue Hot Wings, and chef Brian Kowtko says they’ll probably enter those in the competition again this year. “I think we’re going to roll with the same ones, the defending champs,” he said.

Last year, the restaurant won a plaque and bragging rights. This year, a $600 cash prize is up for grabs in the People’s Choice category. The other three categories come with a $300 cash prize.

Kowtko said he’s entering his restaurant’s buffalo wings in the traditional category, and he is working on a new recipe for the “most creative” category. All he would say is that it is “sweet and spicy.”   

“We’ve got another secret recipe that we’ve been working on,” he said. “We can’t divulge that one.”

Matthew Tremblay, chef at the Sea Dog Brewing Co. in South Portland, is entering wings made with the sriracha barbecue sauce that’s already on the restaurant’s menu in the most creative category, and Sea Dogs’ buffalo wings will be entered in the traditional category. The staff is also working on an entry for the “hottest of the hot” category.   

“I have a hot sauce fanatic on my staff, and he is in love with using different pepper extracts,”

Tremblay said. “We found a 5 million Scoville unit extract to add to our barbecue sauce. I can’t even go near it, it’s so spicy, and I like spicy food. He swears it’s amazing, so I am going to trust him and hopefully we’ll win that competition.”   

For his sriracha barbecue wings, Tremblay brines them overnight in a beer-salt-sugar solution (he uses Sea Dog’s IPA) and adds in soy sauce and some other ingredients he won’t divulge. In the morning, he roasts them in the oven. Then they go into the fryer so they can get good and crispy before they’re tossed in the sauce.   

Tremblay is using sauce only. While dry rubs can add depth of flavor, their flavor would get lost in the “hottest of the hot” category, he said. And as for the rest of the categories, well, he thinks he just won’t have the time for rubs.   

Why? He’s planning on bringing 1,000 chicken wings, which he estimates will feed 600 people.   

Now that’s a hot wing challenge.

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