This is the summer of fried chicken in Metro Vancouver. It’s burning up social media and spreading across special menus everywhere. There are new joints opening up – including three featured here – and established restaurants (Juke Fried Chicken, for one) moving into new neighbourhoods.
Downlow Chicken Shack
- 905 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
Side of Milk. It sounds so innocent, almost childlike. Don’t be fooled. This is the XX-hot version of Nashville fried chicken at Downlow Chicken Shack. And the first time you sink your teeth through its crispy, crackly, scarlet-stained crust is somewhat similar to an exhilarating roller-coaster drop.
Initially, nothing happens. All you feel is the moist, chalky layer of musty ground chili powders – habanero, Scotch bonnet, ghost and the deadly Carolina Reaper – grazing your lips.
After 30 seconds or so, a single tear rolls down your cheek.
Then the burn hits and knocks you sideways. A tingly buzz spreads across your tongue to the back of the throat, building in intensity until it scorches your entire mouth cavity. Your vision goes blurry, your nose sniffles and you start gasping uncontrollably.
Meat? What meat? There must have been some juicy chicken thigh somewhere in that bite, but you don’t notice or even think about it until you emerge from the fog with numb taste buds and a giddy sense of euphoria.
Since it opened in June, there have been long lineups snaking outside this humble counter-service restaurant that features an open kitchen, outdoor picnic tables and blaring rap music. It specializes in Nashville hot chicken, which originated at a place called Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. It became the trendy food du jour three years ago, flapping its incendiary wings into every food truck and Instagram feed from Los Angeles to Brooklyn, N.Y.
But is it worth a 20-minute wait? (The lineups are moving much faster in recent weeks.)
If you start slowly – with the original fried chicken or mildly burning, medium-coated batter – you can actually taste the chicken. It’s extremely tender and juicy, having been brined for 24 hours and then rested in buttermilk for two additional hours.
The seasoned-flour crust is exceptionally craggy and crunchy. Owners Doug Stephen and Lindsay Mann (from Merchant’s Tavern) achieve this thick and deeply creviced texture by flicking buttermilk into the dry flour before dredging so it forms clumps. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately (depending on your preference), the crust doesn’t adhere well to the chicken and cracks off in flat shingles.
You can pick your desired heat level: medium (Mexican chili powder); hot (cayenne and smoked paprika); extra hot (habanero, Scotch bonnet and ghost); and the aforementioned Side of Milk (which gets an extra shake of Carolina Reaper). The spice blends give each heat level a slightly different flavour profile. And the coating is sludgy because the chicken is dunked in warm oil – post-frying – and then dusted in spice. Only the hot versions are fried in chili-infused oil.
Downlow is an impressive fried-chicken operation. And the sides – grainy corn bread, macaroni salad with melted pimento-cheese dressing and bright lashes of dill – are well done. But I honestly don’t think I’d line up for it again. And only a masochist would ever order the Side of Milk.
Frying Pan Food Truck
- 505 Burrard St., Vancouver
- Open Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Need a fast hit of hot fried chicken on your lunch break? The Frying Pan Food Truck, opened last fall and stationed at the corner of Burrard and West Pender Streets, has got you covered.
A cross between Nashville and Korean fried chicken, the meat is brined for 48 hours (no buttermilk), dredged in seasoned flour, deep-fried twice and then coated in a hot chili oil blended with more than 10 types of spices.
The thick, craggy crust has a terrific crackle and crunch. And the hot coating has a bright tang. The “spicy” version is not overpoweringly hot. It leaves just a slight tingle on the sensitive skin above the lip. Unfortunately, they only offer breast meat, hand-pounded into cutlets. While extremely juicy for breast meat, it is breast meat and, thus, relatively tasteless.
It can be ordered in a teriyaki rice bowl ($13) or as a burger ($12) in a buttered, brioche bun layered with creamy slaw and sweet bread-and-butter pickles.
Win Win Chick-N
- 12160 First Ave., Richmond, B.C.
If you’re coming from downtown, the drive to Steveston Village is a long one. But the home-style fried chicken at Win Win Chick-N is well worth going the distance.
Of the all fried chicken sampled for this column (there were more than three), this one satisfied most. There is nothing particularly special about this locally raised, but not free-run chicken. It’s simply brined overnight and battered with seasoned flour. The crust is thin and crisp. There isn’t any hot sauce in sight.
But it is chin-dribbling juicy, salty and – to use a hoary, old chestnut – finger-licking good. This is the kind of chicken you could eat day-in, day-out.
What’s the secret recipe? “It’s made with L.O.V.E.,” said co-owner Richard Roberto as he laughed, spelling out the word.
I actually think the secret is the pressure fryer. It locks in the juices, just like KFC.
Opened on Canada Day, this modest take-out shop is already generating lineups. It only offers chicken (thigh and drumstick, breast is $1 extra), fresh-cut fries, homemade gravy and Filipino spaghetti (a sweet pasta salad made with banana ketchup and tossed with thin coins of hot dog). Except for the pasta, it’s all cooked to order, so be prepared to wait about 10 to 15 minutes.
Mr. Roberto’s sister-in-law recently added homemade ube (purple yam) cakes to the menu. They’re frosted with purple icing, white florets and what looks like a whole lot more love.