- Juke Fried Chicken
- 182 Keefer St., Vancouver, British Columbia
- Fried chicken from $7 (two pieces) to $26 (10 pieces); sides, $6 to $12
- Additional Info
- Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (11:30 p.m. on Fri. and Sat.); take-out counter; no reservations
There aren't many eating experiences that can top the sensation of teeth crunching through shatteringly crisp fried-chicken batter and sinking into a hot cushion of dark thigh meat so moist the juice squirts across your cheek and dribbles down your chin. The joy factor is squared to an even higher power if you chew through a muffled whimper, swallow with an impish smile and think, "Oh my, this is much better than expected."
Such was my carnal experience at Juke Fried Chicken. But why, you ask, was I so unprepared for it to rock my world?
First, because it's fried chicken, one of the biggest food trends in hipster hubs across North America. And, well, you know what happens when Vancouver jumps on the bandwagon, as it is wont to do. Think gloopy tacos for gringos, messy Big Mac baos, gummy pulled pork and endless bowls of sriracha-tossed poke.
Second, it's a fried chicken joint in Chinatown. Granted, there are some very good, even excellent restaurants in Chinatown that transcend the typically low-set hipster bar. Take Kissa Tanto, for example, which was just named enRoute Magazine's best new restaurant in Canada. Still, there are just as many ghetto posers slinging horribly overrated food in this hood.
Third, I had already tried Juke's fried chicken at home through DoorDash Food Delivery. It was steamed, soggy and sad. Don't be tempted. This chicken doesn't travel well in insulated bags. Juke's take-out counter, which seems to be doing an awfully brisk business, might be a better option as they pack the boxes in paper bags. But this excellent chicken should really be eaten straight out of the fryer. And this cozy little modern farmhouse is a very fine place to sit down for a quickie.
Despite its name (juke joints were rural, ramshackle booze-gambling-and-dancing dens catering to blacks in the Southeastern U.S.), Juke Fried Chicken isn't masquerading as a dive bar. The compact room, decked in glass, natural wood, stacked-concrete blocks and a striking neon peeler-parlour sign, is actually quite comfortably posh and ergonomically designed by Ply Architecture. The tightly squeezed booths are fitted with padded bumpers in the corners, where you can park your elbows on one side instead of invading your neighbour's personal space on the other. The bar stools, strapped with leather tags along the back, have built-in leaning foot rests. The fetching bathroom wallpaper, basket wrappers and take-out boxes, featuring a bearded Santa-look-alike in a thong, was naughtily yet nicely branded by Glasfurd & Walker.
The room's polish is a reflection of its ownership's pedigree: general manager Justin Tisdall (formerly of Chambar); chef Bryan Satterford (most recently sous chef at Hawksworth); and financial investor Cord Jarvie (the money bags behind Meat & Bread). They might specialize in fried chicken, but they're not trying to be overtly Southern or overly contrived. Juke is a rarely found, Vancouver-inspired eatery that has adapted a larger trend to a local audience.
And it all comes back to the fried chicken.
Juke's exceptionally crunchy batter is gluten-free, but don't let that raise your trend-adverse hackles, as it initially did mine. The multilayered batter – comprised of cornstarch, potato starch, corn flour and rice flour – was designed for rugged texture, not dietary restrictions. The golden, almost granola-style, snap-crackle coating is so brittle it flakes off the meat like roof shingles in a twister storm. It's almost rude, the way that batter teases you with its muscular bite and then flies onto the plate or lap or wherever the wind direction pleases. But it does make for a memorably sharp entry into a steaming moist thigh or drumstick (if you want white breast meat, you'll have to order chicken strips from takeout) brined in buttermilk and secret spices.
The meat is good. These are non-medicated, free-run birds from Abbotsford's Rossdown Farms. It tastes like chicken, not garlic or tarragon or the chili-infused slurry of Nashville hot chicken as everyone thinks it should – because Nashville hot chicken is all they've been reading about on Eater.com.
You could order pork ribs, which are steamed, glazed and roasted in a nicely sticky clove-scented sauce. But I don't think you should bother. Ribs are Southern barbecue territory. Fried chicken is something else.
And while you might be tempted to order one of the daily meat or fish specials, I don't think you need to bother. They probably exist only because Mr. Satterford is a fine-dining chef who has gone downscale. He has to commit to fried chicken or not, because the corn-breaded, farm-raised salmon that I tried was contorted into boring, dried-out nuggets showered in a dusting of fresh horseradish (nice), yet accompanied by limp broccoli florets drenched in sickly sweet barbecue sauce (bad).
Like I said, stick to the fried chicken. Saturate it with one of the table-side condiments. The hot sauce is brightly acidic (there is also a secret extra-hot hot sauce available by request) or the curiously carbonated honey-infused beer sauce that tastes like sweet cola and should be rightfully bottled for retail (I'd buy a case).
Pile on the side dishes. They are Southern-inspired, but uniquely textured. Squash and grits are a smooth, nearly gritless mash topped with cubed roasted squash and toasted pumpkin seeds. Biscuits, served with a side of corn-bread-crumbled smaltz (rendered chicken fat) have a flaky rise and sweetly crisp glaze. Mac and cheese is the king of mac and cheese, delivered in a piping-hot cast-iron pan with thick noodles to better catch all the oozy chunks of mozzarella and house-pickled jalapenos.
And don't forget to have a drink. There aren't many wine choices by the bottle because it's not that kind of place. You'll be in and out in a jiffy. But interestingly, there are four kinds of sparkling wine by the glass, which probably pairs great with crunchy chicken. The cocktails are inspired, as we would expect from Mr. Tisdall (one of the best in the business). Even the teetotallers will be impressed by the non-alcoholic offerings, including a herbalicious Moscow Mule.
Juke Fried Chicken does toe-curling chicken. It's a very nice space with some elevated accoutrements. If they stick to the basics – giving up the pork and the whole-fish fripperies – I think they could be a potentially exponential smashing success.