A Wing and a Prayer

Photo by Matt CokerYou men eat your dinner, eat your pork and beans, but at Wingnuts, you can eat more chicken wings than any man ever seen.

Just watch the sauce.

That's what I discovered when I ordered the $12.95 wing sampler at the four-month-old Costa Mesa restaurant that's the brain child of Gregg Diganci of Rueben's and Charley Brown's steakhouse fame. The first West Coast restaurant to specialize in chicken wings, Wingnuts further plays off the concept with an airplane hangar motif and televisions everywhere. If this location flies, Diganci hopes to spin out a chain.

With the sampler, one normally gets five wings each in five different flavors: teriyaki, original Buffalo style, honey mustard, kung pao, and sweet and sour barbecue. But my server allowed me to mix and match among any of Wingnuts' 30 wing flavors perfected by Diganci and chef Proceso Bolanos. I settled on Jamaican jerk, charred whiskey barbecue, chipotle barbecue, roasted garlic Parmesan and Buffalo, which come in four different stages of spiciness: mild, medium, hot and “ouch.” Your intrepid reporter opted for ouch—but saved those wings for last lest it torch my tongue.

The charred whiskey tasted like it had been grilled in the back yard—with a hint of sweetness. The chipotle was the most flavorful, its Southwest influences giving way to a spiciness that sneaked up like a shoe bomber. A pleasantly tongue-tingling shoe bomber. The roasted garlic Parmesan was garlicy, soupy and, frankly, bland. But the Jamaican jerk was light and tangy, like the sauce Boston baked beans bob in.

The ouch was just plain obscene. After just one wing, I downed the rest of my three-quarters-full Newcastle, and it still didn't put out the four-alarm fire in my mouth. The wings come with bleu cheese cole slaw—just like your typical picnic staple only packed with bonus chunks of bleu cheese—which I shoveled in to tame the inferno, but pointing my head down only caused snot to run out of my nose and onto my fork. I reached for one of those roasted garlic Parmesan wings, but biting one of those caused the ouch sauce to ignite the garlic, making my piehole feel worse.

Fortunately, my attentive server arrived to see how I was doing. I composed myself enough to order another large Newcastle and some ranch dressing dipping sauce (which comes with celery, 95 cents). Then I asked for bread, seeing as how tortilla chips serve as perfect neutralizing agents for spicy Mexican food. But Wingnuts doesn't serve bread on the side, so I got a plain sourdough roll they make sandwiches with. Between the bread, the beer and the celery, I managed to put out the fire.

Then I bit into another ouch wing. DING-DING-DING-DING!

There are also 10 flavors of ribs, which come in three varieties (beef, St. Louis pork and baby back pork). A table mate went for the most flavorful: 10 baby back pork ribs drenched in the charred whisky sauce ($14.95). He found the ribs perfectly prepared but a tad spicy—wimp! It came with yummerific homemade potato chips and slaw.

Another eater started with chili-cheese fries ($5.95), which are criss-cut French fries smothered in a serviceable chili, melted Cheddar, jalapeños and sour cream. For a main course, she got 10 teriyaki wings ($6.95), which also come with slaw. I'd avoided the teriyaki, thinking it would be out-of-the-bottle common, but after sampling one, I was impressed with its tasty zing.

The final member of our foursome got the crispy Buffalo chicken salad ($7.25), a monstrous portion of spicy Buffalo-style chicken breast strips, shredded Cheddar cheese, olives, carrots and bleu cheese dressing atop a bed of fresh greens. She had enough leftover for lunch the next day.

Newcastle is among 16 beers on tap, from Budweiser to Pyramid Hefeweizen. There are also 12 bottled beers, four house wines, five featured wines, and a full bar pouring the usuals as well as specialty drinks with such names as Cropduster, Barnstormer and the chocolaty Snickertini. But you don't have to drink your dessert: Wingnuts also serves cranberry-apple cobbler, molten chocolate cake, a caramelized banana split and a caloric demon known as the Chocolate Chimi.

We'll save room for those next time. In fact, we may join the Pile High Club, where members get a $10 gift certificate for every 250 chicken wings they order. Of course, if they order 250 ouch wings, they'll never live to redeem it.

Wingnuts, located at 3030 Harbor Blvd., Ste. H-3, Costa Mesa, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. (714) 434-7700. Full bar. Dinner for two, $25, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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