Review: Fire On The Mountain Buffalo Wings

Almost ablaze, still you don’t feel the heat.
Takes all you got just to stay on the beat.
You say it’s a living, we all gotta eat.
But you’re here alone, there’s no one to compete.
If mercy’s in business, I wish it for you.
More than just ashes when your dreams come true.

“Fire On The Mountain”
Robert Hunter/Mickey Hart

The first time I drove by the 60’s rock poster-inspired sign on North Interstate Avenue, I flashed back to June 12, 1980. That was the night the Grateful Dead played “Fire on the Mountain” as Mt. St. Helens presented Portland with an ash shower shepherded by an odd windshift. This was just a month after the big blow. It was a powerful and eerie experience. Heading home post-concert, it was as if a powdery gray snow was falling on a balmy pre-summer night. I do not remember much about the show beyond this striking cosmic coincidence. Other elements of the evening were powerful, too–if you know what I mean–and many other Dead shows would follow over the years.

Twenty-six years down the road, memory fails again when I try to recall why I was driving south on North Interstate early in 2005 and noticed the “Fire On The Mountain Buffalo Wings” sign. No matter. I made a mental note to give it a try soon. I did so the following weekend with my customary weekend dining partner, daughter Gracie. Since, I have visited again and again–with and without la niña–enough times to declare that FOTMBW resides on promised land at the pinnacle of my cheap eats “A” list.
The little building in which FOTMBW nests is a storefront with a few windows looking out onto the street and the MAX tracks. Sidewalk parking out front or nearby is easy. Inside, tables and bar stools seat perhaps 30. A few of the tables are decorated with rock and roll concert tickets under glass. A small television above a short bar usually shows sports with the volume off. The audio track sometimes is the Dead–establishing that the restaurant name is no fluke–other times it is music of the 70’s or perhaps later. Usually, it is loud, once in a while excessively so.

Customers place orders at the bar. Those waiting to eat in are given table stands with vintage baseball cards rather than numbers, though I’m not sure why since servers know where to go. For those with a slightly twisted sense of humor–as owners Jordan and Sara surely have–pay attention to the name of your player.

There is a windy story about the birth of authentic “Buffalo-style” chicken wings. The details are unimportant (and are revealed on a wall sign at FOTMBW for those who must know). It suffices to say they are another happy accident inspired out of desperation. In simple terms, we are talking about deep-fried chicken wings bathed in an emulsion of butter and hot sauce.

This generic description, however, fails to do justice to the hot wings at FOTM. Here, the wings are broken down into convenient drumettes and winglets; deep-fried to order in hot clean oil; then coated with one of a well-stocked palette of sauce options. Five of the sauces are true to the basic vision, but span the Scoville scale from mild for the lightweight to “El Jefe” for those who enjoy (or pretend to enjoy) searing habañero heat. Between are medium, hot and extra hot. I favor the last. The extra hots seem attuned to the original Buffalo-style vision without causing the unfortunate outcome associated with too much capsaicin in a no longer so forgiving digestive tract.

Besides the standards, there are at least another half dozen nontraditional coatings, some of which merit a new tradition. Favorites are the “soon to be famous” spicy peanut which is at least notorious among those who have tried it. Think satay sauce, but a little less sweet and–depending on where you get your satay–a little to a lot hotter. The second must-have special sauce is the Jamaican jerk, a brightly flavored combination packing moderate heat in addition to aromatics which might include a bit of ginger, allspice and a few other ingredients that remain a mouth watering mystery. A third regular, but unfamiliar-in-Buffalo taste is the raspberry habañero. Here, the light fruit flavor contrasts with and mellows the intensity of the pepper–which, thankfully, is doled out with a lighter hand than in the El Jefe.

Skip the sweet bbq sauce. It is a lightly smoky, but excessively syrupy, cloying concoction that my daughter is more likely to order before I will again. The other thumbs down is a failed tequila chipotle concept. It had a gloppy texture that did not coat the wings. The flavor reminded me of a partially dehydrated puttanesca sauce from one of those fast foodish pasta joints.

Stick to the standards, plus the spicy peanut or jerk, and your taste buds will be rewarded. Bear in mind the house rule is one sauce per half dozen wings. Blue cheese or ranch dressing for dunking, plus celery sticks, accompany every order.

Prices are abundantly reasonable: $5.95 for a half dozen wings; $8.95 for a dozen; $12.50 for 18; and on up, with the price per wing descending as the order size increases. According to the menu board at FOTM, the price on a million wings remains negotiable. Perfect for the next time you have over 100,000 of your closest pals. A dozen is usually plenty for one.

If wings are not your thing, you should probably go somewhere else, though FOTM does offer a handful of other choices. Meatless (though not vegan) “wings” cost the same as their fowl counterparts. A vegetarian sandwich, featuring roasted red pepper, grilled eggplant and feta cheese is also on the menu for $7.25. Other chicken-based choices rely on hot from the fryer, boneless chicken breast meat lightly battered and virtually greaseless. There are five chicken sandwich variations, each with a different sauce, all served on ciabatta rolls. Cost is $7.75; plain chicken, $7.25. The same chicken meat can be ordered unadorned with french fries in adult ($7.00) and kid ($3.95) portions.

To tempt the more health conscious, there is a plain green salad ($2.75), and charbroiled chicken can be perched atop three other salads: the Buffalo ($7.75) with the signature sauce; Oriental ($5.45) with the greens accompanied by mandarin orange segments and chopped celery, topped with Asian dressing, slivered almonds and chopped green onion; and Jamaican Jerk ($5.45), in which the greens get an assist from pineapple chunks, red onion and the same inscrutable jerk sauce that comes with the wings. The salads are nothing special, but if their availability is the only way to persuade that special someone to come along while you gorge yourself on wings, it is good they are offered.

A popular stop on the cheap eats circuit, FOTMBW draws an eclectic crowd–from neighborhood folks to river crossers bearing small children–and the place is routinely busy from the lunch hour on. Phone-in to go orders are an especially good idea on major sports event days. If you decide to eat in or forget to call first for take away, trivia game cards at every table help ease the wait. Here is a trivia question: What was the second song of the second set when the Dead played Portland on August 26, 1983?

Answer: Fire On The Mountain (as if you couldn’t guess).

  • Phone: (503) 280-9646 (Interstate) or (503) 230-9464 (Burnside)
  • Address: 2 locations: 4225 North Interstate Ave, Portland, OR. 97217, and 1708 East Burnside, Portland OR. 97214
  • Hours: Mon-Thurs, & Sun: 11am-11pm, Fri-Sat: 11am-12am
  • Website: PortlandWings.com

Fire on the Mountain (Overlook) on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    I have been there a few times, with high hopes that have been duly dashed. Buffalo wings are my guilty pleasure, and this place overcooks them, coats them with admittedly pretty good sauce, and then sends you out into the world, bloated AND reeking of fried. They need
    three things: a timer, a better vent system, and a staff who smokes less pot.
    Just sayin’.

  2. bc says

    My wife and I went yesterday. She is from Buffalo, NY and I was lucky enough to have been given the whirlwind culinary tour of Buffalo which included The Anchor Bar, Duff’s, and Charlie the Butcher (for beef on weck) shortly before we wre married.

    I like fire on the mountain for it’s atmosphere and I think the staff are great. I love the fact that there is a wing joint in Portland (so does my wife, i swear they put red hot in her formula as a child).

    I found the wings to be small, over-fried (dry), and flavorless despite the sauce. In my opinion, the sauce has too much butter and they miss the mark with the acid balance as a result. Wings should be more red than orange. They lack that “red hot” spice and bite.

    Comparing the wings to the ones in the Buff makes me believe that the wing joints in western NY not only get larger chicken wings to begin with, but also that they brine them prior to frying. The wings in Buff were bursting with flavor and moist ass hell, despite the long frying.

    I like the mountain for what it is, but I don’t think they do true Buffalo Wings justice.

  3. Food Dude says

    BC: I’ve pretty much forgotten about this place since Michael reviewed it. I’ll try to go by next week and see if we should update the review.

  4. daawgon says

    “They need three things: a timer, a better vent system, and a staff who smokes less pot.” Well said, Zetta! What a disappointment! I must say these people are very friendly, but the wings do not cut it at all. While the sauces are quite imaginative, the chicken part leaves a great deal to be desired. For what one gets, I’d say it’s overpriced too. What I can’t understand is how this place gets such raves???

  5. hilsy says

    In a slightly different wrinkle, don’t expect to be able to call in a take out order. On a Thursday evening at 8 pm, I tried both establishments by phone and got the same “mailbox is full” message. I drove to the Burnside location to see what the wait would be for take out considering that I had tried to call in an order and was told 20 minutes. Their response to the fact that they don’t answer their phone was what I expected from a place that needs “a staff that smokes less pot”: a shrug of the shoulders. I literally threw the menu back at them and left.

    • Manners says

      Wow, you sound like a quality person, throwing menus at people. How about if you don’t like a place, just don’t go there instead of being rude to the people working a menial job?

  6. doc says

    I’ve had the wings and they are good…that said I visited the newer store on Burnside and got the classic look away treatment from the too cool counterperson. I had about 20 minutes and wanted a beer and some wings and to get. After the chat with the regular to my right, the eye contact with no smile, no greeting and no offer of anything I realized my business was not wanted…so I left. I know Jordan, and dropped a quick e-mail on their site with no resonse. Pretty much not on my list anymore.

    • says

      Doc,

      I try very hard to respond to every contact from the website. There have been a couple times where the email contact left has not been valid. I’m sorry you are not on our list anymore. For the most part we have been very happy with our staff and hold regular meetings. One thing we do at these meetings is harping on the need to acknowledge customers. Since customers order at the counter, sometimes the staff assumes that if someone is sitting at the bar they have already ordered. Still not acceptable we realize. As for Hilsy, we are trying to do a better job to answer the phone. Sometimes when we are slammed with phone calls it goes right to the voicemail. But throwing a menu back at the staff seems kind of childish and to rely on someone else’s baseless assertions about the staff needing to smoke less pot seems even more childish. We will do our part to improve, maybe you should look at yourself too. Thanks for the feedback.

  7. Arkie says

    I love FOTM. If you think there are better places for wings, please share. And please don’t nominate Buffalo Wild Wings. They can’t hold a candle to FOTM.

    • kj says

      Actually, I like the wings at Buffalo Gap (down Macadam) very much. Large, great sauce, and good meat. Occasionally, we’ve had a larger drummy not be cooked all the way so watch for that at any wing place. Much better than the horrific Buffalo Wild Wings and “Horrible Hooters”. I won’t set foot in either again.

      I haven’t tried FOTM, but I will give it a try and see what I like better.

  8. Taylor says

    Having been introduced by a friend to the best chicken wings in the world in Atlanta, Georgia (Three Dollar) I can say this about FOTM: these are the best wings in Portland. The secret is ordering them “extra crispy” so they’re fried just a couple of minutes longer, giving them a crunchier skin which also holds up better as a left-over eaten cold the next morning. For sauces, I’ve sampled many: medium (so-so); hot (excellent); spicy Thai peanut (the best); buffalo-lime-cilantro (my favorite); and “El Jeffe” (should be illegal). All around good wings. The rest of the grub is pretty standard, but they do have pretty decent sweet-potato fries, if you’re into that kind of thing. Good beer and sometimes entertaining local/amateur music acts to drown out the ubiquitous television background noise. The staff always seems friendly, if a little harried and stressed out during busy times. If you stumble in on 25-cent wing night, good luck finding a seat.

  9. Scott says

    I live in North Portland and have visited this neat spot several times. They do many things well, but I just wish they rendered the fat of the skin more, as Taylor mentions. Good to know you can request “extra crispy”! This would make the skin more palatable, instead of being, well, flabby unrendered skin. But the meat is always juicy.

  10. says

    i have had some extremely yummy piles of wings at fire on the mountain! in fact, i have days where i just crave this place. i want to share a way to eat wings that maybe some folks don’t know about, so i’m quoting myself from another post. this concerns the mini-drummette type wing vs. the pointy-bony type wing:

    “…you will think that the little drummettes are the best ones when really that is not at all the case. the bony wings are for definite hands down sure the best.

    i come from a place that calls chicken wings “pounders” and where you buy buckets of them “by the each” (way back then they were 15 cents a piece). you take the wing, pound the jointed end on your plate until you feel the joint snap; then you pull all of the meat over and off the bony wing in one succulent piece, ready to smother in the blue cheese dressing, and you get a mouthful of spicy gooey chicken goodness instead of those tiny unsatisfying silly bites off of the bone.

    yes. sometimes people look at you like you have no manners. and your fingers get very, very messy, grossly slathered in red sauce. but it is SO worth it.”

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