You can have your pâté and truffles, your caviar and Wagyu—but one thing I would pick over those (or in addition to those), anytime, is fried chicken. There are so many places to get so many styles of fried chicken in New York City that you could eat it somewhere different every day for a year and still have more to try. New spots keep popping up, each with its own proprietary spice blend, brining method, frying technique, delivery system. As of late, there’s a new Hawaiian fried chicken (at El Ta’Koy, in SoHo), a new Nashville-style hot (at Dave’s Hot Chicken, in midtown), and likely more. I’ll save those for another day and, meanwhile, drop these in the bucket.
Rowdy Rooster (149 First Ave.)—from the warningly named Unapologetic Foods, a group of Indian restaurants which includes the Lower East Side breakout hit Dhamaka—is a small East Village counter spot that roared onto the scene in February with incendiary fried-chicken sandwiches ($9-$12). To order, you choose a type of fried chicken: Lil’ Rowdy (slider-size) or Big Rowdy (normal-size) chicken sandwiches, small bone-in pieces, or boneless chunks. Next, choose a spice level, each featuring a different Indian chili: Rascal (mild; anyone can handle this), Ruffian (inoffensive, barely spicy), Rebel (a hot, pleasing singe), Rogue (“When it starts to get interesting,” as one cashier put it), or Rowdy (“crazy,” fear-inducingly hot).
The level you choose depends on your idea of fun. The sandwiches, on pao (Lil’) or slightly dry potato buns (Big), feature thickly battered, juicy leg meat, deep-fried and showered with spice powder—a good amount seeping into the jagged crust—topped with red onion, mint-and-cilantro chutney, and a bit of yogurt sauce. The Rascal and the Ruffian make for fine sandwiches, but you came here for spice. The Rebel starts out fruity and a little sweet, delivering a smooth, irresistible hum of heat. The Rogue is almost, but not quite, an assault, with an intense burn that sinks deep into your tissue and stays there for several minutes; once it recedes, you have no choice but to go in for more. The Rowdy requires a mental long game, not to mention heat-tolerating genes that many will never know.
At Rowdy Rooster, each spice powder features a different Indian chili, from mild to incendiary: Rascal, Ruffian, Rebel, Rogue, or Rowdy.
The elevated fast-casual spot Three Roosters Thai opened in Hell’s Kitchen (792 Ninth Ave.) in 2020, and in Chinatown (23 Pell St.) in May. For a fried-chicken set ($15.95), fillets of skinless white or skin-on dark meat, with a hefty flour coating, are deep-fried, sliced, and served atop textbook sticky rice or luscious ginger rice, glistening with chicken fat. Accompanied by scallion-fortified chicken broth, cucumber slices, and sweet chili sauce, it makes a substantial, delicious meal. Also on the Chinatown menu are a Hainanese poached chicken with rice, various noodles, wings, and exemplary curry puffs. If you like, the chicken (and other items) can be dusted with zab seasoning, a blend of salt, sugar, toasted rice, lemongrass, makrut-lime leaves, and Thai-chili powder, for a flinty, sweet-sour tinge.
Charles Gabriel, of Charles Pan-Fried Chicken, is a cult figure of Harlem, where his restaurants have been neighborhood staples since the first one opened, in 1990. After closing his last location during the pandemic, Gabriel opened two new branches, in Harlem (340 145th St.) and on the Upper West Side (146 W. 72nd St.), with sleek, modern graphics and merch to match. (Two more New York City shops are planned.) But Gabriel’s recipe hasn’t changed: he dry-brines the chicken with salt, pepper, and garlic and onion powders (plus a couple of secret ingredients), then dredges each piece in seasoned egg-and-milk wash and all-purpose flour before frying them in soybean oil in a giant cast-iron pan (never a deep fryer), turning the pieces constantly for even browning. The resulting chicken—salty, crunchy, and surprisingly light on oil—tastes just as good hot from the pan as it does cold from the fridge. “Pure joy, pure love!” a delighted customer exclaimed as she watched a server fill her three-piece box ($17.95, with two sides and corn bread), summing up the feelings of everyone in the store. ♦