By Kate Bernot, @redeyeeatdrink
5:11 PM CDT, September 26, 2013
Review: Honey Butter Fried Chicken
3361 N. Elston Ave. 773-478-4000
Rating: 3 1/2 (out of four)
"You should know that I'm currently eating a bowl of chicken cracklings."
That's how Joshua Kulp, chef and co-owner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken, interrupts his business partner and fellow chef Christine Cikowski during our 10:30 a.m. phone call.
This breakfast of champions isn't the first piece of evidence that the duo is chicken-obsessed.
Kulp and Cikowski already had a successful, seven-year-old supper club business, Sunday Dinner Club, when they decided two years ago to expand with a restaurant. The pair didn't want to turn Sunday Dinner Club—which still operates dinners five to 10 times per month in the apartment above Honey Butter—into a brick-and-mortar, though. The focus of the new project, they decided, would be one of Sunday Dinner Club guests' favorite dishes: The honey butter fried chicken.
Now, after what feels to them (and us) like quite a long wait, HBFC has opened its doors as a counter-service and take-out operation on a corner lot in Avondale. Though Twitter had revealed photos of lines down the block on weekends, there was hardly any wait when I stopped in on a week night soon after the opening to try a first bite.
While some chefs cite their grandma's recipes as the be-all, end-all chicken inspiration, HBFC has no such family ties. "I didn't grow up loving fried chicken," Kulp said. "When we first started making it, we came at it without a lot of nostalgia." During the extensive recipe-testing process, the flavor of the meat was always front-of-mind. "We wanted the chicken to be really flavorful, not just crispy and fried. The zestiness of the chicken on its own was super-important," Kulp said.
And zesty it is. I first grabbed a drumstick—the only piece of chicken at HBFC that's served with a bone—from my two-piece chicken platter ($8). After I tore off a piece of golden skin the texture of gravely pavement, it crunched in my mouth and released a burst of spice that was zippy, smoked and salty. Cikowski would later explain that it's smoked paprika and cayenne salt, but I'll just call it delicious. Gild that golden chicken with a generous smear of the honey butter—a sweet addition that's whipped to the texture of fluffy cream cheese—and prepare to involuntarily moan "mmmmm" as you attain sweet-salty nirvana.
The meat itself remains juicy, even the often-dry breast pieces, thanks to a salt water and citrus brine. Under an onslaught of tangy purple cabbage and jalapeno mayo, the savory flavor of a thigh piece manages to take center stage in the Fried Chicken Sammy ($8). After demolishing the sandwich and most of our combo platter, my friend and I repeated over and over that we're full—and then continued to steal bites of the remaining drumstick on our plate.
It's gluttony of a wholesome type, though. The chickens at Honey Butter come from Miller Poultry, a processor and distributor of antibiotic-free, humanely raised chicken. HBFC buys them whole—about 750 chickens a week—and butchers them at the restaurant so that they're prepared exactly the way the chefs want. Yes, this is incredibly labor-intensive. A few days into service, the restaurant was swamped with lines out the door and was running out of chicken. Kulp grabbed a dishwasher, Carlos, and handed him a knife: "I showed him how to [butcher] one chicken and 10 minutes later he was flying through chickens faster than anyone I'd seen," Kulp said. "I'm still not quite believing him that he's never done it before."
If sides are your favorite part of a fried chicken dinner, HBFC will be happy to oblige your preference (order the three sides combo [$10.50] for maximum sampling). HBFC offers a trio of constants—pimento mac 'n' cheese, a raw kale salad and a roasted sweet potato salad with a lime vinaigrette (each $3.50)—in addition to rotating seasonal creations. Sunday Dinner Club has always focused on in-season ingredients, and Cikowski and Kulp wanted to inject some of those market-fresh veggies into the fried chicken venture; on my visit, specials included creamed corn with Thai green curry and my least favorite side of the night, Chinese broccoli with goat cheese. Portions aren't of the size to induce narcolepsy, either. My friend and I easily polished off three between the two of us, along with a pair of adorable corn muffins slathered with yet more honey butter.
As we prepared to leave, a server stopped by our table and insisted, with the earnestness of a child revealing a secret, that we order the "dump cake." Two minutes later, we dug into this homestyle dessert that is every bit as rich and comforting as it is unfortunately named. (The name refers to the way ingredients are 'dumped' into the pan before baking.) That day, the cake tasted like peanut butter and jelly, a fittingly playful end to the meal.
Don't scramble to leave after dinner (or lunch, which HBFC plans to launch at some point in the future). The casual front dining room is built for efficient eating—our entire meal arrived with a speed that rivals Jimmy John's "freaky fast" guarantee—but a rear bar and 110-person-capacity patio are prime for lingering. Even as the weather chills, heaters—and a few rounds of the bourbon-spiked Damn Good Sweet Tea ($7)—should keep people warm outside.
Unlike the other high-profile fried chicken spot, Parson's Chicken & Fish, which opened earlier this summer, Honey Butter isn't catering solely to the Pitchfork set. I spied a few children, casually dressed neighbors and my table even struck up a conversation with the middle-aged men at the adjacent table who dined with their elderly mother. "We're already becoming a neighborhood place. You might not know somebody, but you feel comfortable talking to them," Kulp said.
It requires a lot of attention to detail to create memorable fried chicken, and Honey Butter Fried Chicken nails each step of the process. "There's so much good fried chicken and there's a million ways to do it," Kulp told me, but I'd go far out of my way for Honey Butter's version any day.
RedEye reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeatdrink
By the numbers
1,000-1,200: Pieces of chicken consumed at HBFC daily
120: Whole chickens used at HBFC each day
6: Days per week HBFC is open (closed Tuesdays)
2-3 hours: Length of time it takes two or three people to butcher all the chicken for a day's worth of orders
8-12 minutes: Length of time chicken spends in the fryer
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