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Is a chicken wing without chicken even a wing?

When it comes to food, I am incredibly picky, demanding, a snob and a reverse snob, too — the kind of guy who will argue passionately for the bygone days of fine dining when all men wore hats and cravats and women all giggled when they drank champagne as though it was their first time. And then, just when I've gotten you to agree that, yes, things really were better when everyone was eating stuffed pigeon and entire lobes of foie gras and keeping the neighborhood haberdasher in business, I'll turn on you, accuse you of pretentiousness and say that no, things are much better now, when I can walk into any taquería in the city in flip-flops, Jams and a Nixon mask and get a fantastic spread of tacos al pastor, two beers and an Enramex phone card without ever speaking a word of English.

Actually, I'm a prick in pretty much all respects (ask my wife — she'll vouch for me). The truth is that I just love to fight. I'll say one thing, pick my hill, die on it, and then, five minutes later, turn around and argue the other side just for the pure joy of a good argument.

Needless to say, I get my wish a lot. I've argued long and hotly both for and against Colorado barbecue, Rocky Mountain sushi, cheeseburgers, robots and whatever else piques my interest on a given day. Chicken wings, for example.

Joel Warner, my ink-spattered comrade-in-arms, recently mentioned that his vegetarian wife had picked up some seitan chicken wings from WaterCourse Foods over at 837 East 17th Avenue, and that he'd not only eaten the "wings" (I have to use quotes because seitan is made from wheat flour dough, and bread doesn't have any wings) but enjoyed them. "If you don't believe me, try them," he said, pointing a tremulous finger at me, already shaky from meat withdrawal. "What are you, scared?"

As Warner well knows, that question is the quickest and easiest way to get me to do just about anything, because in addition to being a prick, I am also easily influenced by peer pressure, advertising, dares or even the bizarre requests of strangers on the street. And to compare the all-vegan, boneless seitan shrapnel served at WaterCourse to the holy of holies — the Buffalo chicken wing — was a challenge I could not resist.

But first we needed a control — a chicken wing that Joel and I could agree on as a sort of middlemark and against which we could judge the WaterCourse offering. Luciano's (1043 Broadway) was eliminated because it is the second-most Buffalonian restaurant in Denver (the first being the Old Fashioned Italian Deli, at 395 West Littleton Boulevard, which doesn't make wings) and would therefore be too close to my heart. Ditto Woody's Wings, 1740 South Buckley Road in Aurora, because I am convinced that this Woody's location does the best, most authentic (and certainly the best-smelling) wings in the city. So we decided to try the wings at the Fainting Goat (846 Broadway), the bar that took over the former home of Moon Time (which was the Minturn Saloon before that, and the Parlour long ago) and has recently become a personal favorite (see the Cafe Society blog for details).

The Goat's wings did the trick. Served by the pound and with the appropriate sides (celery sticks, carrot sticks and a cup of chunky blue cheese dressing), they earned points with me for their crispness and surprising size (most Denver wings are too small), although Warner claimed the sauce (Frank's RedHot and liquid butter, the only sauce that ought to be called Buffalo sauce) wasn't hot enough — and then drifted off into a dim reverie about how the chickenless chicken wings at WaterCourse were both punishingly hot yet still flavorful, tasting almost like actual meat, but without, you know, actually being made of any.

Here's the Wikipedia description of seitan: "Wheat gluten, also called seitan, wheat meat, gluten meat, or simply gluten, is a food made from the gluten of wheat. It is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch dissolves, leaving insoluble gluten as a gummy mass, which is subject to further processing."

Doesn't that just sound delicious? Because God knows, whenever I'm feeling peckish, I find myself longing for a gummy mass of insoluble wheat gluten.

After we finished the Goat's wings, we proceeded to drink a bit. Then a bit more. I'd promised to check out WaterCourse as soon as possible, but after a couple, three, four or five Wall Streets on ice, I wasn't in any condition to judge anything other than maybe a wet T-shirt contest. And since Warner wasn't wearing a T-shirt and no one else at the table seemed up for being hosed down and ogled, I went home.

But the very next day, I dragged myself out of bed at the crack of noon and — after six cigarettes, half a beer and a bowl of Frosted Flakes — proceeded directly to WaterCourse, where I ordered not just the "wings," but also the Buffalo tofu sandwich. I'll say this about the "wings": They did smell good. And as anyone who's ever spent any time in Buffalo will tell you, the smell of a box of wings cooling on the passenger seat on a cold winter night is one of the most comforting, most appetizing smells in the world. Getting the smell right (which has to do with a combination of fryer grease, the vapors rising off of heated hot sauce and damp cardboard from the to-go box) is important. But you know what's also important? The way the wings taste. And that's where WaterCourse's "wings" won't fly.

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