Little Chicken review: Unraveling the mysteries of good fried chicken

The three guys behind Little Chicken, this ground-floor poultry playground in Midtown Center, toured the South for several days last year on a fact-finding mission. They wanted to see if they could crack the mysteries of the Great Southern Fried Chicken. The seasonings. The frying technique. The flirt. All they could learn.

But first, they had to find quality samples. So Casey Patten, Gerald Addison and Chris Morgan ate chicken. They ate a lot of chicken. By their own estimate, they visited 60 establishments in Charleston, SC, Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville and many places in between. And that number “could be low,” says Patten, the Philadelphia native who co-founded Taylor Gourmet and later opened Grazie Grazie after his original sandwich empire collapsed.

Of all the birds they sampled, one in particular stood out: the fried specimens at Price’s Chicken Coop in Charlotte. Little did the trio realize at the time how lucky they were to try the signature dish at Price’s, which would close just months after their visit, another victim of the pandemic. They did however realize how special the chicken was.

“It was the one where he just hit on all cylinders. It was kind of like the aha moment,” says Morgan, who along with Addison also co-owns Bammy’s at Navy Yard. “I don’t think I could really identify at that time… what they did to achieve ‘that perfection.’

But the guys tried. Addison says they sat in the street in front of Price for an hour, pooling their collective knowledge to dissect the chicken. “We were just trying to distinguish, like, ‘What’s that flavor? What’s it like to give him that punch?’ says Addison. They never really understood it.

I can identify with their plight. The first time I tried a three-part box of Little Chicken, my brain raced through a series of thoughts at the speed of a computer processor: It is an excellent bone-in chicken. There’s something in the seasoning. I can’t identify it, but it’s more than the usual suspects: salt, black pepper, paprika, dried herbs, and garlic powder. What is that?!

Like the guys outside of Price, I sat and pondered this bird, hoping the next bite would trigger a synapse to release the response like a ball of gum from a quarter machine. Nothing. I mentioned my own unfortunate questioning of their chicken to the guys on a conference call. There was an uncomfortable pause.

“Well, we love it,” Addison says.

Addison didn’t mean it harshly, as if the guys were reveling in a little schadenfreude. He was just recognising, I think, one truth about good food of any kind: Sometimes mystery only intensifies its pleasures. Then again, maybe the guys were just basking in their sleight of hand, that injection of flavor that’s part signature and part number, unidentifiable by traditional methods. Either way, none of the three were about to reveal their secrets, especially about those “some random things we found were super important. [to the chicken] and maybe not as obvious,” as Addison explains.

Little Chicken is also curious in other ways. It’s a downtown restaurant – with a menu from Addison and Morgan, a pair of acclaimed chefs – that doesn’t take itself seriously. Inside the place, artist Nicolette Capuano has designed bold graffiti-covered walls that feature a very plump, very angry chicken that appears to be engaging in an act of cannibalism. Some cabins double as birdcages, and the terrace bar offers cocktails not only by the glass, but also by the jug. Did I mention there was also an old fashioned shuffleboard outside?

The free-wheeling attitude carries over to the menu, too. The partners have designed a line of sandwiches specializing in – if I had to reduce it to one word – excess. Their pocket utensils are so laden with toppings, condiments and sauces that sandwiches tend to dump their load like an overturned tractor-trailer. The five-towel burger has nothing on these babies.

This excess, of course, is in search of flavor – big, sloppy, spicy bites like Pinky’s Out with its lava flow of crispy garlic sauce – but sometimes it comes at the expense of the crispy outer shell of the chicken. . It’s a compromise I’m willing to accept with creations such as the Cluck Norris, a pepper jelly-covered sandwich, its sweetness declaring independence from the autocracy of peppers that seem to dominate the kitchen.

My favorite snacks and sides are those that tend to cut the frying oil, like smoked trout deviled eggs draped in pickled onion strands (although I wish the piping topping wasn’t cooled into a pasty mass) or cucumber salad, which trades on crunch, acidity and a light, refreshing sweetness. Broccoli slaw seems out of place on the menu, but the floret bites, tossed with pine nuts and dried cranberries and a sour cream-mayo-vinegar vinaigrette, cleanse the palate better than any sorbet. with lemon. And that tasty cornbread? I could eat a baking sheet of it, especially brushed with the whipped blueberry butter that comes with it.

As the owners developed recipes for Little Chicken, they discovered a fact little known to people outside the bird business: that running a chicken shop takes a lot of work if you want to maintain any kind of consistency, and even then , some factors are beyond. your control. Like the size of your chickens or if your supplier has enough chops to get you through the day.

I mention this because your chicken, like mine, may vary from sandwich to sandwich. One day you might find a slice of fried breast meat as thick as a Russian novel (pre-Kindle version, that is). The next day, you might discover a pair of tenders replacing your cutlet. And the next day, you may find that the coating on your bone-in bird is twice as thick as your previous order.

The image that comes to mind is not chickens, but ducklings learning to navigate uncharted waters. On the surface, they seem calm and somehow responsible. Below the waterline, they paddle like crazy to maintain their momentum. Little Chicken is a bit like that: under its playful air, you can feel a crew struggling to maintain it, despite the challenges. I respect that.

1100 15th St. NW, Midtown Center ground floor, 202-989-0292; justlittlechicken.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday to Sunday.

Nearest metro: McPherson Square or Farragut North, a short walk from the restaurant.

Prices: From $4 to $42 for all menu items.

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