Unlike pizza and burgers, fried chicken has never had a large- enough local profile (below 125th Street, at least) to spark much excitement among New York’s superheated gastronomes. That, it seems, is about to change. Even with avian-flu paranoia seeping into our collective culinary consciousness, the city is undergoing a minor fried-chicken renaissance, thanks to the southern-fried labors of two celebrity chefs whose poultry-based expansions have recently come home to roost.
Charles Gabriel, a Harlem luminary known for the peerless pan-fried chicken and soul-food buffet at his Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen, has infiltrated lower Manhattan (lower for him, that is), entering into a consulting partnership at the new Rack & Soul. The casual upper-Broadway spot, with its Greek-coffee-shop layout and disarmingly friendly service, serves the full gamut of southern-style cuisine, with a pit smoker overseen by co-chef John Wheeler, but it was the prospect of Gabriel’s chicken that lured us there. Seeing him through the kitchen window one night tending to a giant cast-iron pan of bubbling oil—an Underground Gourmet celebrity sighting of the first order—gave us, yes, goose bumps. And the chicken, ordered with a fluffy round waffle as one of the two included sides, was as we’d remembered—a crisp, golden-brown crust, moist meat, and a well-seasoned flavor that induces uninhibited bone gnawing and finger licking.
To have fried chicken of this caliber at its disposal would be reason enough for this neighborhood to rejoice. But everything else we tried measured up. Tender sauce-slicked barbecued pulled pork combined moist, succulent meat and crispy bits, and the beef short rib unabashedly lived up to every fall-off-the-bone cliché. Baby backs glazed in a sweet sauce were meaty and satisfying, and of all the textbook sides, we liked vinegary collards and soupy black-eyed peas best. (Split decision on puréed candied yams, which one of us lapped up, and the egg-larded potato salad, which had a similar allure for the other. And in authentic, slightly institutional, but nevertheless irresistible fashion, the mac and cheese was baby-food soft and unnaturally orange, and the green beans way overcooked but tasty.)
Although the space is plain, with red vinyl booths and a designated takeout counter and entrance, Rack & Soul, unlike Charles’s uptown HQ, does offer wine (served in water glasses) and a couple of unusual beers, like Louisiana’s Abita and Gosser from Austria. There is iced tea and lemonade, of course, and the usual dessert suspects—a supersweet banana pudding and a decent red velvet cake—trucked in from a Harlem bakery. It remains to be seen how much time Gabriel will spend there, ultimately. But with toothsome, authentic southern cooking and a staff that’s not above chasing you out into traffic with a misplaced takeout waffle, Rack & Soul has enough going for it that the Harlem hero’s whereabouts might not even matter to the most devoted chef groupie.
Ninety-five blocks south, chef groupies have been storming the gates of Dirty Bird to Go, the two-and-a-half-week-old takeout spot owned in part by onetime James Beard Rising Star Chef Allison Vines-Rushing and her husband, Slade Rushing. The couple co-helmed Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar before decamping for their native South, where they run the Longbranch outside New Orleans.
To see the great pandemonium at Dirty Bird is to wonder whether New Yorkers have always been closet fried-chicken freaks, waiting for a better excuse than Popeyes to indulge. Allison Vines-Rushing, with her slow-food approach to fast food, her organic seasonal vegetables, and her natural, free-range fryers, as her press materials tell us, is just that.
But Dirty Bird is a good, simple idea struggling under the weight of heightened expectations. Throw a star chef’s name around and foodies will flock. At the moment, however, the place is ill-equipped to deal with the pressure. In fact, there are lemonade stands run by small children that operate more efficiently than Dirty Bird.
It doesn’t help matters that the counter staff seems prematurely sprung from a narcolepsy trial-clinic. On all four of our visits, the sleepy-eyed chicken wranglers failed to get our order right—although the menu couldn’t be simpler, composed as it is of fried or rotisserie chicken, five sides, and three salads. The homemade pepper vinegar that’s supposed to accompany the chicken never did. And then there’s the age-old problem of supply vs. demand: The kitchen runs out of chicken faster than Totonno’s runs out of dough.
If you can weather the service snafus, the food at Dirty Bird, with a couple caveats, is worth a shot. The “seasonal organic veggies” du jour—one time crisp sugar snap peas, another asparagus—were fresh and uncharacteristically lightly cooked if scant, and Jojo’s herb-strewn slow-roasted potatoes tasted restaurant-quality. But considering their provenance, we had higher hopes for “dirty rice” and mac and cheese—not that they were bad, just average. And in a city full of flavorful Peruvian and Dominican rotisserie chickens, Dirty Bird’s is a pale-skinned also-ran.
The featured attraction—double-dipped deep-fried chicken—sparked some debate. One of us found the crunchy- skinned, juicy-fleshed bird delicious and compelling despite its slightly sweet and overbattered exterior. The other couldn’t see past the thick clumps of bland batter to the bird. It was as if Lucy and Ethel had commandeered the kitchen, lost count of how many times they had dunked the assorted wings and thighs, and just kept on dipping to play it safe.
The lemonade, when they have it, is tart and almost floral—a real treat. And embarrassingly enough, we both liked the giant chicken fingers—a kiddie dish and a debatable fried-chicken subspecies we might never have tried had it not been the only protein available one evening. “Without a bone, chicken lacks its savory essence, its primal Henry VIII appeal,” food writer John T. Edge sniffed in his book Fried Chicken. But at Dirty Bird to Go, for the time being, at least, you take what you can get.
RACK & SOUL
Address:2818 Broadway, at 109th St.; 212-222-4800
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Prices: Entrées with two sides, $9.95 to $17.95.
Ideal Meal: Combo platter of fried chicken and pulled pork with waffles and potato salad.
Note:The thermostat at this place is set at meat-locker level; dress in layers.
DIRTY BIRD TO GO
Address: 204 W. 14th St., nr. Seventh Ave.; 212-620-4836
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Chicken, $5.99 to $20.99, or $7.99 to $28.99 with various side-dish combinations.
Ideal meal: Fried chicken or chicken fingers with seasonal organic veggie of the day, roasted potatoes, and lemonade.
Note: Get there early before they run out of, you know, chicken.