April 2, 2006
There are several vital facets to creating a successful neighborhood. Parks, a great pub, a green grocer, a pizza shop, and the list goes on. For me, high on the list is a place where I can buy a proper roast chicken, a true expression of a neighborhood’s culinary diversity and coming of age.
I am not partial to any cultural recipe. I’ll take Peruvian, Dominican, Cuban-Chinese, Jewish, New American or any other ethnic version as long as the chicken is done right. I rate roast chicken based on aroma, texture, and flavor.
The Upper West Side is a good place to start, partly because I grew up there and also because of the RCB, or roast chicken per square block ratio. It appears that every three or four blocks someone is trying their hand on this boon, as people gotta have their roast chicken fix.
The Chirping Chicken spots crisp their chicken skins quite nicely, but the texture is on the dry side, and the flavor is not very forthright. There are a number of these types of restaurants around the city. Their motif is all but too similar and bland.
Keeping on the mainstream path is the Dallas BBQ chain. The roast chicken seems to cater to the early bird dining crew. Stick to the fried chicken if you must.
A number of barbecue places sell their rotisserie chicken smoked. It is often too smoky to enjoy the flavor of the chicken.
A number of supermarkets also sell a reasonably priced roast chicken to go. These versions are passable, but nothing to shirk specialty shops for. Perhaps if they used the organic birds they sell, the chickens would be more delectable.
Dominican restaurants generally excel in their roast chicken preparations. The aroma of the chicken at the Malecon brings you through the door. The skin tastes sublime, but something is lost when the texture and flavor is tasted. If only it were as succulent as it smelled.
At Flor de Mayo, a Cuban-Chinese criolla spot, they make a Peruvian style roast chicken which has been a favorite of mine for years. A fiery red sauce is offered on the side, and I order the pollo a la brasa every time.
Nearby to Flor de Mayo stands the now defunct Tacita de Oro which easily had the best roast chicken and rice combo in town. The chicken scored high on all three criteria, but after over thirty years in business, lost their lease. It was a sad day for all chicken lovers.
On the East Side en El Barrio, there are dozens of Puerto Rican versions offered. I find them a tad overspiced and dry. Better to stay with the roast pork (pernil), their specialty.
Restaurants invariably offer roast chicken on their menus because they know someone will always order it. It is safe and somewhat foolproof. Bullpucky. Some of the best restaurants mess this up night in and night out, and they should stick to the fancy food they’re known for.
Often when I’m out tasting with the Grand Crew, one of us usually orders the chicken, and depending on the restaurant, it is the best dish served.
Recently I enjoyed the roast chicken at Bouley Upstairs in Tribeca and La Luz in Brooklyn, an absolute bargain at five dollars.
My quest for the best is ongoing, and would love to hear your recommendations. In the meanwhile, I have been fooling around with roast chicken recipes for years, and am known among my friends as iron chef roast birds. My friend Dr. L. from the Grand Crew travels to Israel, goes to the Arab Quarter and brings back an herb and spice mixture called Za’tar. The following is our latest collaborative recipe. Try it and let me know how it rates to your favorite spot.
Remember, eat life.
Za’tar Roast Chicken
3 lb. organic chicken
juice of one lemon
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup Za’tar
salt & pepper
5 cloves garlic
1 tbsp. ginger
Set oven to 375 degrees.
Spatchcock (Cut out backbone) chicken and reserve for stock.
Rinse chicken under cold water.
Set aside on a baking tray layered with aluminum foil.
In a mortar and pestle, add garlic, ginger, pinch of salt. Mash into a paste.
In a mixing bowl add rest of ingredients and paste. Incorporate.
Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of chicken.
Spread mixture on front and back.
Place on tray, breast side up, and roast for 45 minutes.
- Za’tar is an aromatic Middle Eastern herb-and-spice mix (a type of thyme and sesame seeds)
- Spatchcocking flattens the bird out allowing for even cooking