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Let's Order Juicy, Crispy, Pricey Chicken for Dinner!
The critics at New York Magazine, Vittles, and The LO Times write about the tasty birds at Hakka Cuisine, Tatiana, and D&K Gambian
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When I was a young graduate student in Morningside Heights, I’d treat myself to a regular dose of luxury before statistics class.
I’d pop into my neighborhood tavern and order a half rotisserie chicken, a pile of golden fries, and a cold pint of beer. It was tastier than anything I could make at home, or that I could find at fancier places. It didn’t cost too much either. And afterward I got to daydream about the bird’s chewy, gelatinous skin — essentially a carnivorous fruit roll up — while sitting through lectures on distribution models.
The chicken dishes that Pete Wells and I wrote about this week — and that NY Mag’s E. Alex Jung wrote about in July — are incredibly delicious as well. But they’re also less affordable than my casual grad school dinners of yesteryear.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone — though I’m not necessarily referring to the realities of regular inflation or the extra dollars you pay at a fine dining spot.
Over the past two decades, more and more chicken has achieved “object of desire” status, commanding our gazes (and draining our wallets) the way a sexy cote de boeuf at Minetta might’ve once done.
Heck, I can’t even remember the last time I thought of a New York chicken dish as the proverbial “cheapest bottle of wine on the list,” a frugal item you order less out of joy, more out of resignation.
A watershed poultry moment occurred in 2009, when David Chang convinced local gourmands that fried chicken shouldn’t be a casual, walk-in affair. The chef charged $100 for a large format Korean and Southern fry; snagging a reservation was a bit like winning the lottery. And of course droughts out West in the 2010s pushed up beef prices, a force that surely led chefs to find more luxury in chicken, pork, and other meats in our steakhouse-centric town.
It’s against this larger backdrop that Daniel Humm debuted a foie gras-stuffed bird at The NoMad in 2012, a dish that made “chicken breast sexy again,” Pete Wells wrote that same year. He argued that the dish was “talked about more avidly and incessantly than any other new restaurant offering in town, going back perhaps as far as the introduction of the Bo Ssam…”
The year 2012 was a big one for my own chicken-eating self, because that’s when I started to develop a serious yakitori habit, thanks to all the charcoal-torched livers, hearts, and gizzards at Tori Shin on the Upper East Side. And when that omakase spot relocated to Hell’s Kitchen, I quickly found myself chomping through soft knee bones, medium-rare breast meat, and juicy arteries. How do chicken arteries taste? “Like fatty, charred rubber bands, sweetened by a teriyaki-style sauce,” I wrote for Eater in 2015.
Nearly a decade later, restaurants throughout the city are catering to diners ready to splurge on birds with tons of nuance and character. This isn’t chicken that tastes like chicken, as the saying goes.
Our city now has a crop of offal-y, post-Tori Shin spots like Torien ($185), Kono ($175), and Nonono (where “back cartilage” goes for just $4.50).
Our city now has an Upper West Side restaurant where one of the priciest items is a cumin-laced roast chicken that you douse in fiery hot sauce. And now we have journalists writing about $69 chicken at Hakka Cuisine with the precision that they might have once devoted to a truffled bird of Gallic descent.
The state of chicken in New York is strong.
So let’s take a look at what Wells and Jung have to say about the fine fowl at Hakka. But for a bit of perspective, let’s start off with something more affordable from across the pond.
Listen to Jonathan Nunn of Vittles talk about how D&K Gambian’s Dembo Konteh packages his rotisserie chicken. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself so hungry listening to someone describe how a takeout order is bagged up. Maybe we need more of this type of writing, because at so many places, our interaction with a dish isn’t at a chef’s counter or an open kitchen (where dinner is literal theater), but rather, at a bare bones street stand or storefront. Nunn writes about the art of sealing up a take away dish with the precision that you’d expect from a journalist recounting three chefs performing surgery on a plate of Dover sole meuniere. Read:
[Konteh] will ask, around forty times each day, “spicy or non spicy?” before sliding down a whole, blackened bird, chopping it in two with scissors to reveal a coarse lining of thyme, then placing it in a foil sleeve. If you have ordered potatoes – and you should order them – he will scoop up a handful of boiled new potatoes, and baste them in the incarnadine drippings which have gathered in a shallow pool at the bottom of the grill, before putting them in the same bag. He will add more generous spoonfuls of the red oil, then find another sleeve to place the first, already oily, sleeve in, before wrapping it all in a plastic bag. Finally, he will add the whole thing to another plastic bag, to quadruple check there are no leakages. He will do this, forty times a day, until there is nothing left.
Alright, now onto the more expensive birds.
Hakka Cuisine in Chinatown serves…hakka cuisine, the foodways of the namesake ethnic group with large populations in Guangdong, Fuijan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Quite a few people like the restaurant. One of those people is Pete Wells of the NYT! He digs the salt water chicken, a dish that’s slathered in salt, dunked into salt water, and them steamed. But Wells really enjoys a much posher chicken:
Mr. Huang’s kitchen has the strength and counter space for Hakka blossom chicken, a lesser-known dish that sounds like an even bigger pain. It starts with removing the skin in one piece using a cleaver, leaving the head and wings attached, then stretching it over a woven bamboo screen to dry. The skin will be stuffed with minced shrimp and soft taro and then cooked until crisp on the outside, springy and creamy on the inside.
The bird arrives somewhat flattened, Wells notes, “looking like Wile E. Coyote after he was run over by a steamroller.”
NY Mag’s E. Alex Jung, in his own writeup from July, reports that the dish is a riff on Jiangnan hundred-flowers chicken, a preparation that rose to prominence in Guangzhou in the 1920s, per the Lai Times. He has a lot to say about the fowl as well, but while Wells deploys a fun cartoon metaphor, Jung focuses on the magic of what it is, and what it isn’t. Enjoy:
You would be forgiven if you thought you were just eating chicken. At first glance, the Hakka Blossom Chicken at Hakka Cuisine looks like a flattened, deboned bird cut into rectangles with crackling brown skin on top, two wings flanking its sides, and a head as a souvenir. But bite into a piece, and suddenly you’re eating shrimp, bouncy and flecked with creamy cubes of taro. There’s an audible crust of fried mei fun — rice vermicelli — on the bottom. It’s a beautiful mindfuck: Just because it looks like a chicken doesn’t mean it is.
New York wouldn’t be New York without halal cart chicken and lamb over rice, as I wrote in my weekly review for The LO Times. The affordable staple kept me nourished during my Bloomberg News days, but chef Kwame Onwuachi has a fancier version at Lincoln Center’s Tatiana. Observe:
A half bird comes dusted in a mixture of house creole spices, cumin, and oregano. The flesh is tender and the skin is as dark as chestnut. It packs notes of sugar, smoke, and musk. Drizzle a bit of yogurt and tongue-stinging hot sauce over the meat and you have something on par with one of New York’s top chicken dishes.
Then there’s the lamb rice, which drips with sauce as dark and rich as mole poblano. For this you pay $62, not bad for a dish that feeds two. And keep in mind I use Onwuachi’s chicken as a Trojan Horse for discussing a larger strain in modern fine dining: Party Restaurants.
Okay, let’s take a little break from chicken.
Let’s talk about carnitas. The Mexican speciality, in New York, can translate to chile-rubbed pork that’s been cubed and roasted. And it can also refer to run-of-the-mill pulled pork. But Luke Fortney, writing for Eater NY, finds something a bit less common in Brooklyn.
In a Bushwick driveway, La Perra Hambre’s Isaac Reyes serves carnitas tacos made from quite a few parts of the pig, including nose, hearts, tongues, ears, and skin. It all sounds very cartilaginous and rich:
The exact cuts of meat change from week to week, but the method for preparing them is the same. Reyes, a native of Mexico City, simmers the pork for hours in a stainless steel tub filled with gallons of lard. As the meats tenderize in their own fats, he navigates the pot like a Venetian rower, moving meats here, then there, with a paddle. Now and again, he adjusts its flavor with lime juice, thyme, and whole oranges.
Jung — whose summertime chicken missive we were talking about earlier — decides to go eat a whole lot of wonderful organ meats for his NY Mag column. I’ve always found good offal to be delicious, but using the power of language to make off-cuts sound tasty can be a be a challenge.
Lucky for us, Jung is up to the task. He has fun things to say about veal liver sashimi, beef anticuchos, and in my favorite bit, the intestinal offal at Gopchang Story.
We got two sampler platters with daechang (large intestine), gopchang (small), heart, and tripe served tightly packed like rolls of cold cuts along with rice cakes, potatoes, and a tumbleweed of shaved scallions. There are two options: original, which comes in a dusting of garlic powder, and a spicier marinade. I’m partial to a classic: the daechang hits that chewy sweet spot. This, like almost all good food in Korea, is supposed to benefit the skin and the loins.
Former Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Patricia Escárcega has launched a twice-monthly newsletter on Substack. It’s called Extra Juicy and I recommend it! A good place to start is this long essay on the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez borderlands, with nuanced meditations on authenticity, canned foods, and how, according to one historian, the “industrialization of Mexican foods flattened and subsumed the cuisine’s complicated and regionally-diverse foodways.”
Do devote a few minutes to reading the whole thing, but let me leave you with a few lines from the introductory paragraph, which makes me want to try a particularly speciality:
An El Paso burrito is a thing of beauty: long, slim and tautly rolled, filled with succulent guisados like chicharrón or barbacoa, or maybe huevos con winnie (scrambled eggs with sliced hot dog). The best come bundled in sturdy, ultra-fresh flour tortillas and wrapped in heat-preserving tinfoil, details that evoke the handiwork of a doting Mexican mother.
Alright, that’s enough for today! But let me add this: Rotisserie chickens with their stretchy bronzed skins (as opposed to densely crispy skins) are still my favorite. And that’s why we’re so lucky to have Peruvian spots like Pio Pio and Kausa serving sub-$20 birds in Hell’s Kitchen and elsewhere.
p.p.s. Okay, one more thing lol. If you’re in the mood for a splash of fin du siècle poultry excess, here’s how ex-Times critic William Grimes described the chicken at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House back in 2000.
There's a kind of humility, too, in the dish described, in aw-shucks fashion, as ''boiled country chicken with vegetables.'' It may be from the country, it's definitely boiled, but this is a rube dressed in Versace. Accessorized with white truffles, a simple chicken breast comes swathed in an insolently retrograde Albufera sauce, a chicken veloute that Mr. Ducasse has quietly upgraded with foie gras butter and a blend of Madeira, Cognac and port.
This gold-plated 19th-century classic, attributed to Careme, is executed here with absolute mastery. This is the kind of food that disarms criticism. You raise your eyes and give thanks.
It was a measured three-star review, but wow, you don’t really hear folks talking about ultra-polished fine dining like that anymore!