Vancouver restaurants share their secrets to fried chicken perfection
If the thought of a battered, deep-fried chicken drumstick gets you salivating, Paul Langins can relate.
“Fried chicken is a drug in its own way. It satisfies a hankering,” says Langins, sous chef at Refuel (1944 West 4th Avenue), where their fried chicken “fix” will have you obsessively sucking every last bit of delicious grease off of your fingers. And no, don’t even think about comparing this chicken to the KFC variety.
Make no mistake about it. Fried chicken isn’t the healthiest of foods, and Langins fully admits it. That’s why Refuel only features it on treat Fridays, when $18 will get you three pieces of chicken, a jalapeno biscuit, gravy, and vinegary coleslaw. Come summer, they also offer daily fried-chicken takeaway “picnic” options. (Expect to spend $35 for a six-piece meal.) (Update March 14, 2012; Refuel has announced that the restaurant is closing after March 24, 2012.)
Refuel’s chicken tastes so good because, as cheesy as it sounds, it’s made with love. And it starts with the meat itself: Polderside Farms redbro heritage chicken raised free-run in Yarrow. Langins marinates it in buttermilk, salt, and pepper for a week, and then cooks it sous vide for eight hours.
Standing in the open kitchen, Langins demonstrates how, with every order, the chicken pieces are dredged in a flour mixture (paprika, cayenne, bay leaf, salt, and pepper), then buttermilk, and then flour again before being deep fried in beef tallow for a few minutes. Take a bite: first you get the crispy outer batter shell, then the soft inner coating, and then you hit the unbelievably tender meat. It’s revelatory.
It seems every restaurant has its own take on the fried bird. Tableau Bar Bistro (1181 Melville Street) does a mean fried chicken and waffle for Sunday brunch ($15), as does Two Chefs and a Table (305 Alexander Street; 7-3331 Viking Way, Richmond) for brunch and lunch ($13.50 and $13), and Hidden Tasting Bar & Social Lounge (433 Robson Street) for lunch and dinner ($16). At St. Augustine’s (2360 Commercial Drive), executive chef Herman Wong says he’s going for “the whole comfort thing with a little bit of a twist”. For his version, he brines the chicken for 24 hours in a mixture of water, lemons, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, and thyme. He then coats the chicken in buttermilk, and twice in flour spiced with salt, pepper, paprika, sage, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram.
The chicken is then deep fried three times, initially once for 10 minutes at a lower heat. With each order, it’s fried for a second time for a couple minutes, allowed to rest, and then fried for another minute. He also tosses whole garlic cloves and rosemary sprigs in the oil as crispy morsels to nosh on, and serves it along with the beer-battered onion rings, creamy coleslaw, and miso mushroom gravy accompaniments ($16).
Wong sits at a St. Augustine’s table and leans in to reveal his personal favourite fried-chicken joint: L.A. Chicken (160-11780 Thorpe Road, Richmond). “The chicken is juicy. They get the skin crispy. And you can order a side of rice,” he says.
L.A. Chicken is a nondescript fast-food outlet that you’d easily miss if you aren’t in the know. Wong is bang on, though. Chicken is made to order, and the flour batter, especially for the spicy version, is so crunchy and satisfying that you almost don’t need the juicy meat. A four-piece chicken dinner ($11.89) comes with fries, a choice of salad (potato salad, creamy coleslaw, or macaroni salad), gravy, and either original or spicy fried chicken. If you’re feeding the whole family and they’re extra ravenous, a 20-piece box of chicken will set you back $31.99.
Fried chicken Asian-style also does the trick. My Chau (1715A Kingsway) sells Vietnamese fried chicken legs (ga chien) for $4 a pop, or $7.25 with rice (com ga). It’s basically an unbreaded, crisped deep-fried chicken leg—simple, yet expertly done. The meat is chopped up into seven or so pieces, which makes it easy for dipping into the fish sauce that comes with it.
Another fried-chicken expert is Chris Kim, chef/owner of Zabu Chicken (1635 Robson Street), who worked previously in Seoul for KyoChon, one of the largest, most popular fried-chicken restaurants in South Korea. Suffice it to say, he knows his chicken. His version is marinated in a mixture that includes soy, garlic, honey, onion, apple, and pineapple. The mixture takes two to three months before it reaches its optimal depth of flavour. If you visit, you can glimpse Kim in the back, coating the chicken in a batter of flour and water, triple frying it, and then brushing it with the sweet soy garlic marinade.
A whole chicken is $19.95, or go for drumsticks (five pieces for $9.50), wings (12 pieces for $13.95), or a wing/drumstick combo (large for $19.95). During a recent visit, a group of Korean students were busy digging into a plateful of wings. They looked pretty darn satisfied.