Now please join us in welcoming Alphonse Pierre, arguably the greatest rap writer in America, who has elected to write a top 10 list about chicken. Thanks Al, you da best!
A few weeks ago, TikTok food critic and influencer Keith Lee had the New York streets screaming at him in their Sweepers ENT. voice when he touched down on the five boroughs. The problem was that the locals—(likely) 12 year olds in the comment section and the most annoying wannabe walking billboards on the platform—felt that his first stops in Queens, to get a mysterious salmon chopped cheese, and Lower Manhattan, to hit up a few of the big name pizzerias, didn’t properly capture the essence of New York. I understand their complaints, if it was up to me I wouldn’t have sent him to Joe’s pizza either. (I need my slices made in an outer borough by a dude with questionable politics, like you know damn well Sal and his sons in Do the Right Thing were throwing down behind the pizza counter.) But Keith Lee trying to get a glimpse of New York in a few days was always going to be a failure. I’ve lived here all my life and I’m still far from wrapping my head around all the cultures and dishes that make New York completely singular.
In my mind, the New York dish that gets at the heart of the city the most isn’t a slice of pizza or a sandwich from the corner store, but the half chicken meal. Is that controversial? I know that it’s generally viewed as a boring dish for the picky eaters and non adventurous, but as I’ve gotten older and explored new neighborhoods, I’ve learned that nearly every culture has their own version of it with subtle differences.
Maybe at the Peruvian spot in Jackson Heights they serve it with green sauce and fries. Maybe at the Mexican joint in Sunset Park it comes with a side of tortillas. Maybe in Chinatown they serve it over a bed of rice. Maybe it’s fried or grilled or baked or roasted in the rotisserie. Maybe it’s slathered in jerk sauce or atop a pita. Maybe it’s got a peppery kick or hint of sweetness. Maybe it’s for fine dining or served like fast food straight from the takeout counter. You can essentially go on a cultural tour in the city through the half chicken meal.
To the skeptics, I know where you’re coming from. I was also once a kid who dreaded the days when their overworked mom revealed that dinner for the night was flavorless grocery store rotisserie chicken. That shit was dry as fuck. (Quick tangent: Typing the last sentence ’caused me to pause for a moment and fire up one of my favorite New York raps of the year.) I know that most people go out to eat food that they would rather not cook at home, and the simplicity of the dish isn’t seen as worth it. I know that it’s not exactly photogenic or TikTokable. But put some respect on the simplicity and no frills art of a perfectly cooked chicken that isn’t juiceless or under seasoned or doesn’t feel like one of those unappetizing rewards on an episode of Survivor. And also be honest: You’re probably not nice like that in the kitchen anyway.
Below is a list I compiled throughout the year of my favorite 1/2 chicken meals. I only hit four of the five boroughs, so sorry to the BX (Forgive me, I love Juan Soto and Kenzo B).
10) Inca Chicken - Bushwick
Peruvians run the rotisserie chicken game. Inca Chicken is a super simple and affordable spot that I sometimes slip into after hooping in the area. Their bird has flavor and isn’t usually tough, and you can get some steamed vegetables on the side if you’re tryna’ be fake healthy.
9) Chicken Feastin - Bedstuy
A fast-casual takeout joint that’s like an elevated version of the hood chicken shop. They say their chicken is “charcoal broiled” and I don’t really know what that means but it manages to have a dark, crispy skin while not being so dry that it makes my voice sound like post-Polo Sporting Goods Retch (Sidenote: Getting older is realizing that Finesse the World is actually pretty decent). They’re kind of like Greek or some shit, which seems like a reasonable guess considering they have a “greek specialties” section on their menu. But then again, you can also get yuca fries and yellow rice and beans. Well, whatever it is, I fuck with it.
8) Lebanese Eatery - Port Richmond
I was put onto Lebanese food back in the day when my friend Hassan would pick up lamb shawarma from Karam in Bay Ridge, a couple blocks from where his dad has a car repair shop, for our friend group before a night of sitting around the hookah like it was a campfire. I would go back there myself and found that I liked the way they roasted their chicken, mostly because it came with a fire ass garlic sauce and pita. This year, though, my go to spot for this style was Lebanese Eatery in Staten Island, where the chicken was good but the rice was even better. I’m a rice man and this shit is kind of oily but not overly so and tastes so good when you mix it with the chicken, garlic sauce, and salad (that makes me think of that one Family Guy cutaway) all in one spoon. The only problem is that the pita is buns, go down the street to Zara Forest Grill for a fresh one.
7) Andreas Chicken - Williamsburg
I might be overrating this, because given all the bullshit food they upsell you in Williamsburg when I stumble into something solid, I’m shocked. Andreas is overpriced Peruvian but I’m willing to pony up the bills because I can devour their green sauce like Denise Richards could mayo in Undercover Brother.
6) Chick’n Rotonda - Middle Village
I didn’t hit Queens-based half chicken institutions this year like Caravan in Astoria and Peking BBQ in Woodside, but I did stumble into Chick’n Rotonda while bored in Middle Village one day. It’s a Filipino spot and unlike most half chicken dishes I’ve had, it’s kind of sweet because it’s coated in a lemongrass spice rub. That’s not usually my thing but they do it well and the sides go crazy. That adobo fried rice is serious.
5) Pio Pio 8 - Midtown
I understand all of the Pio Pio hate, they’ve expanded too much and that rips the beating heart out of a restaurant (not to mention higher prices and smaller portions). But it’s still good, even if maybe undeserving of its rep as a New York institution for chicken. I hit the Midtown West location earlier this year while taking a lunch break from my job, and inside a ton of other people had the same idea. It’s straightforward: Chicken, rice and beans, maybe some tostones if it’s payday. Yeah, it’s hard to beat a quick meal that leaves you full and gives you a slight air of superiority over your co-workers because you know you probably had a better lunch than them.
4) Casa Adela - Lower East Side
I had stopped going to Casa Adela because that used to be one of the spots I used to frequent with my ex. You can’t let a breakup ruin your relationship with some good chicken, though. When they have it it’s fire—sometimes they’ll hit you with the bad news that the chicken won’t be ready for another hour. Wait if you can, there’s usually some good people watching to be done in the area anyway.
3) Exquisite Supreme - Flatbush
I’m cheating here. Because technically a half chicken order should include a breast, thigh, drumstick, and wing. At Jamaican restaurant Exquisite Supreme when I order a 1/2 chicken worth of their baked chicken they’re really just giving me all leg quarters. It’s fine because it’s so consistent and tender and it’s honestly more flavorful than a lot of orders of jerk at other places. Get it with rice and beans or pasta and tell them to throw you some green beans as well. An added bonus: Their hot sauce is actually hot.
2) The Fly - Bedstuy
It pains me to put a transplant hotbed owned by “the team behind critical darlings Hart’s and Cervo’s” so high on this list, but they really go the fuck in. Their bird is so soft it could melt in your mouth and I could practically drink the juice that the chicken soaks in. And I’ve yet to have green beans in the city I like more. I have no idea what they’re covered in but whatever it is got me poppin’ them like I pulled them out of Carti’s snack drawer.
Ayat - Bay Ridge
Ayat’s ½ BBQ chicken with rice, hummus, baba ghanoush, salad, AND the fresh bread might be one of the best meals you can get for under 15 dollars in the city. I’ve only eaten at the Bay Ridge location so I can’t speak for the others (but I trust Abe Beame’s temperature check at the East Village spot) but despite rapid expansion the food is still great. The chicken literally falls off the bone without being undercooked (and you can still cut into it despite them usually handing you plastic utensils) and the flavor is so distinctly loud especially when mixed with all of the sides. As one of the few Palestinian restaurants in the city it can definitely be packed, especially lately where it’s become a destination for New Yorkers in search of any way to support the local Palestinian community as the U.S. tries to brainwash us into believing that a genocide of their people isn’t taking place at the hands of Israel and all who back them. And even with all of that said, the food is not overshadowed, it’s that good. Along the way exemplifying what’s so special about the half chicken meal: It’s a perfect way to put your culturally specific bent on a dish familiar to everyone.