There is nothing more basic than a chicken dinner. Once a sign of prosperity (“Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” anyone?) and stability, it has over the years been downgraded to the most basic unit of protein, good for not much more than adding bulk to a Caesar salad or a bowl of soup. When scientists began trying to perfect a sustainable meat substitute, they went straight to the chicken breast because of its utter blandness and lack of character.
I say it’s time we took back this once-proud meal. No matter whether you’re living high on the hog (hen?) or barely scraping by, there’s an exemplary chicken dinner in this city for you.
Ask five people their favorite place for roast meats in Chinatown, and you’re likely to get five different answers. Unless one of those is Big Wong King (67 Mott St., bigwongking.com), they’re all wrong. Though other windows may beckon with shinier displays of burnished strips of pork loin and tidily hung ducks, their heads hung coyly forward, Big Wong King quietly dominates with a subtlety of flavor to their marinades and tender, juicy meats.
The true test is in the soy sauce chicken, so often a soggy afterthought to the red-cooked showstoppers. Here, it’s salty just up to, but not beyond, the point of good taste, and the bird has absorbed plenty of soy sauce’s vaunted umami boost. Couple that with the fact that Chinese chefs don’t believe in white meat (that gets saved for white-guy chicken and broccoli), and the result is chicken so fully flavored you’d swear it was duck. It’s served simply over rice to soak up the excess sauce and extend the experience, with a welcome bok choy garnish on the side, for only $5, a bargain even by neighborhood standards. Or get a pound straight up to go, and see how far you can carry your styrofoam container before ripping into it like a cartoon werewolf.
The farther east you go in the East Village, the slower news travels. Over on Avenue C, the word hasn’t arrived that the fried chicken trend was officially called last year when The Dutch opened to slavish devotion for its version, just a year after David Chang threw down the gauntlet with his massive Korean/Southern-style fried chicken feast. And thank god for that, because Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter (94 Ave. C, bobwhitecounter.com) is quietly serving some of the best fried chicken around.
While The Dutch’s menu has moved on and the Chang feast of the moment is Ssam Bar’s duck lunch, Bobwhite is churning out chicken and biscuits that are in the best Southern tradition (the owner is from Virginia). All of their ingredients are responsibly sourced. For $45, you can re-enact a KFC commercial without the PETA guilt and get a bucket for the whole family—12 pieces of chicken, that is, plus biscuits for four people, a salad and three of that day’s sides, which rotate seasonally but include black-eyed peas, mac and cheese and Brunswick stew. Depending on your family, you might need two.
If you’ve recently come into an inheritance, the NoMad’s (1170 Broadway, thenomadhotel.com) chicken for two is the city’s newest status symbol, neatly dividing the have-had-its and the have-nots. A cool $79 buys you entrée into this club, the benefits of which include not just the meal but bragging rights for the next six months or until a new hottest dish comes to town.
In a display of showmanship straight out of the Ancien Régime, the bird is presented tableside nestled in its own cast-iron cradle. It’s roasted whole, stuffed with black truffle brioche crumbs and foie gras, and it arrives with an elegant spray of flowering herbs clasped between its legs, like an absurd Miss Poultry America. Then it’s taken away again, carved for you (cutting your own meat is for peasants) and the dark meat fricasseed with mushrooms and enough butter to cause spontaneous gout.
It’s a meal fit for a king, to be sure. Then again, they all are.
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