“I had come to believe that one can judge the quality of a cook by his or her roast chicken,” Julia Child writes in her classic memoir, My Life in France. “Above all, it should taste like chicken: it should be so good that even a perfectly simple, buttery roast should be a delight.”
Roast chicken is food’s most beloved cliche. It’s a dish that countless chefs and home cooks love to celebrate, quoting or rephrasing that exact passage while trussing a bird or arguing over the benefits of a spatchcock. It’s been written about to death, the primary subject of treasured cookbooks and Twitter debates. And if roast chicken isn’t the star of the show, its crunchy, down-home sibling — the fried chicken — is taking the glory.
There will never be a year that chicken isn’t a major player in the international food scene. It’s consumed all over the world, presented with macabre flair in fine dining restaurants or mcnuggeted for the world’s countless McDonalds. But for a city that usually likes to deviate from the norm, Portland was infatuated with the country’s most-consumed meat this year, producing fried, grilled, and barbecued chicken shops in a way it hasn’t in years.
It started with Maya Lovelace’s long-anticipated Yonder, with its three styles of crunchy-crusted fried chicken; Bae’s Chicken came after Yonder, handling the hot and golden-fried birds on the other side of the river. Gabriel Pascuzzi went a different route with his Mama Bird, a restaurant dedicated to wood-fire grilled chicken with a panoply of sauces and accompanying vegetables. Big’s Chicken returned to Portland this year with its Alabama-style barbecue chicken, and Hat Yai opened its second shop for Thai shallot-fried. Even those that didn’t open in 2019 caught their stride this year — though it technically opened in the fall of 2018, fried chicken sandwich cart Jojo PDX got positive nods from national culinary hotshot J. Kenji Lopez-Alt this summer. And that doesn’t even approach all the specific chicken dishes at new restaurants across the city, from Magna’s Filipino chicken adobo to Gado Gado and Wajan’s Indonesian ayam goreng.
Chicken remains popular and cheap. The US Department of Agriculture estimated that Americans ate an average of 93 pounds of chicken per person in 2018. Since 1970, U.S. chicken availability per person has more than doubled, making it easily accessible in mass quantities. It’s also a safe bet: Portlanders love chicken and have for decades, from Pok Pok’s wings to Nong’s Khao Man Gai.
In a restaurant market that has become harder and harder to survive, going with something safe makes sense. Pascuzzi doesn’t see the pineapple-brined grilled chicken at his restaurant as “safe,” but he does think that it was a crucial way to build an audience. “We couldn’t have opened a wood-fired grilled vegetable restaurant. We wouldn’t get people in the door,” he says. “So we have our chicken, but we have our potatoes, and our three or four different vegetables. My focus is on the vegetables as well as the chicken.”
“I saw chicken coming down the pipeline,” says Micah Camden, the prolific fast-casual restaurateur behind Super Deluxe, Little Chkpea, and the newly opened Bae’s. “If you look at the East Coast, fried chicken was the biggest thing over there. It seemed like the right play.” He’s not wrong: the growth of David Chang’s chicken brand, plus the explosion of chicken chains like Jolibee and Chick-Fil-A in New York, seem to indicate that the country is still infatuated with crispy-fried birds. For Camden, it makes sense, considering the global shift away from red meat. In general, Portland has championed healthier habits in recent years, with more vegan options and a shift toward sobriety within restaurant industry circles. “I could eat chicken four or five times a week and feel fine,” Camden says. “If I ate steak four or five times a week, I would be comatose.”
There were also restaurants that went in on chicken when they really didn’t have to. Berlu, the fine dining spot from Castagna darling Vince Nguyen, made the focal point of its first tasting menu a single chicken served five ways, including grilled hearts and a poached breast. For him, it was the quality of the bird he found that inspired the dish; Nguyen used chickens raised at Marion Acres in Helvetia, right outside Portland. “I was first introduced to their chickens when I was at Langbaan for a pop-up... it was just a really impressive bird,” he says. “My food can be really strange sometimes... You get this surprise of unfamiliarity as you start, and then there’s the surprise of familiarity later in the menu.”
Perhaps Portland’s fixation on chicken also had something to do with its comfort. 2019 left so many in a churn of turmoil: Locally, the year involved a lot of unrest, between Oregon’s own impeachment inquiry star Gordon Sondland and the Proud Boy gatherings downtown and elsewhere. Subsequently — correlated or not — Portland’s restaurant businesses fell back into safe, comfort-food trends: pizza, fried chicken sandwiches, wood-fired barbecue. “Fried chicken has a universal appeal. In Southern cuisine, it feels really celebratory. There’s something very personal about it that people can connect to, especially in moments of strife and difficult times,” Lovelace says. “A lot of people have come upon (fried chicken) because they want to make money, but a lot of chefs genuinely want to comfort people... That comfort is very much what people are searching for right now.”
Next year, we’ll see even more fried chicken, when Doug Adams’ fried chicken shop Holler opens in Sellwood-Moreland. Still, as more and more chicken arrives grilled, barbecued, deconstructed, and fried, it’s become harder to find a simple oven-roasted chicken in Portland, the kind that Julia Child fawned over during her time in France. Coquine serves a lovely version with wild rice pilaf and Romanesco; it’ll be interesting to see if competition flies in as the new decade begins.