All the buzz generated by the burgeoning better-burger segment has served to obscure the extraordinary growth of, a reliable menu commodity that’s been waiting in the wings for its culinary close-up. It appears that its big moment has arrived, as operators of all types embrace a protein that is healthful, cost effective and highly versatile.
Spicy chicken is hot. This is especially true in the South, where an incendiary flavor treatment that originated in Nashville, Tenn., has spread like wildfire. The marriage of fried chicken with a super-hot sauce has cropped up like kudzu on sandwiches at trendy spots such as Holeman & Finch Public House and One Eared Stag, both in Atlanta, and it appears to be headed on a northerly trajectory. The menu at Leghorn in Chicago features a Nashville Hot as one of only two fried-chicken sandwich choices. Sandwiches are also overheating at Baguette Box in Seattle, where the Crispy Drunken Chicken offers an homage to popular Chinese-restaurant stalwart General Tso with deep-fried chicken glazed in a tangy brown sauce and served on a crispy baguette. Seattle is also home base to Ezell’s Famous Chicken, a fast-casual chain lauded by Oprah Winfrey as having the best fried chicken on the planet. The product is marinated in Creole seasoning, with a generous dash of cayenne.
Fried chicken is hot, too, even without the spices. The comfort classic that’s tough to make at home is enjoying a renaissance of sorts on restaurant menus, with support from culinary luminaries like überThomas Keller. At Addendum, his takeout kiosk in Napa Valley, Calif., patrons can score a boxed lunch of buttermilk-fried chicken for $16.50, a serious bargain compared to the cost of dining at upscale sister concept The French Laundry. Other operators are making fried chicken convenient by serving it on a bun. The fried-chicken sandwiches made with extra-crispy buttermilk-fried patties and topped with savory slaw at Bakesale Betty in Oakland, Calif., are the stuff of local legend.
Cold fried chicken has become a bit of a cult item. At ink.sack in Los Angeles, the No. 1 best-seller is a cold fried-chicken sandwich made with thighs cooked sous vide, then breaded with corn flakes and fried. Clear across the country at Federal Donuts in Philadelphia, the meat is shredded; mixed with garlic, lemon and tahini; then stuffed into a hot dog bun. The result is reportedly cold-fried-chicken nirvana.
Chefs like chicken. Many of them, perhaps recognizing the overcrowded conditions in the burger segment, are flocking to open their own poultry emporiums, typically featuring birds that are locally and organically raised. Bantam + Biddy in Atlanta puts the rotisserie front and center, while Pecking Order in Chicago features Filipino-accented dishes. Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano, slated for a November opening in Atlanta, will offer traditional Italian chicken specialties from the Amalfi Coast area of southern Italy. Some of these operations, like Bantam + Biddy and Leghorn, also tout their use of special heritage breeds.
And chains like chicken, as they’re introducing new products at a dizzying rate. Hot dog specialist Wienerschnitzel has introduced Der Chicken Dippers, a popcorn-style snack offered with three sauces. Burger King grabbed attention with limited-time-only ethnic specialties that included an Italian Basil Chicken Sandwich, a Chicken Parmesan Sandwich and an ItalianBurrito.
McDonald’s also has been playing chicken with its menu, and on the heels of a Spicy Chicken McBites promotion has been testing bone-in Mighty Wings.
Established chicken specialists haven’t been taking the competition lying down, of course. KFC launched Original Recipe Bites with a major marketing blast this summer, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen introduced Handcrafted Tenders with six signature sauces in the fall.
Looking ahead, the poultry push may be slowed temporarily by product availability issues, but it won’t be stopped. It appears that a chef-driven better-chicken segment may be in the offing, and while it won’t seriously impede the burger juggernaut, it will offer a fresh take on a basic product that’s truly coming into its own.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is also available in the Nov. 12 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News, typically available to subscribers only. Subscribe today.