Fried chicken has been a favourite treat that has had a host of purveyors in the quick-service sector for decades. That includes KFC, Popeye’s and Mary Brown’s Chicken — a distinctly Canadian operation that grew out of Newfoundland in the 1970s and expanded into 200 locations across the country.
The popular dish is also found at many independent restaurants somewhere on their menu, either as tenders, nuggets, full pieces – boneless or not – and tucked into sandwiches and wraps.
Restaurants such as Waterloo’s Bauer Kitchen and Kitchener’s Darlise Café have chicken sandwiches on their menus, as does a long list of full-service, full-menu venues too numerous to mention.
There are also more restaurants, such as Waterloo’s Wildcraft, serving plant-based fried “chick’n” wings.
When it comes to variety, and often using potato starch for crispiness, you will also find karaage – Japanese and Korean fried chicken and some of the best around – at a number of locations locally: Jinzakaya, Watami and Seoul Soul Waterloo, and Kinkaku Izakaya and Crafty Ramen in Kitchener and Guelph, where there is also Coco Chicken.
Other chicken versions include Juicy Birds Waterloo and Penny’s Hot Chicken, also in Waterloo. Rooster’s in the University Shops Plaza serves Halal fried chicken, chicken sandwiches, chicken on rice, platters, smash burgers, poutine and pizza.
Fried chicken with a South Asian twist
Other recent entries into the local marketplace speak to the continued popularity of the deep-fried dish, each with slightly different approaches.
Having opened about a year ago, Big D’s Hot Chicken is located directly across the street from sister restaurant Ace Shawarma on King Street in downtown Kitchener.
Cambridge-based brothers Irfan and Qasim Darsot’s business have added Nashville-style hot chicken to their restaurant portfolio, but with a couple of twists: it’s Halal and has a fusion of Indian seasonings and flavourings.
The pair were inspired to venture into fried chicken after Irfan visited numerous fried-chicken joints during a visit to Los Angeles — venues that, he says, far out-numbered shawarma restaurants.
You could in fact ask: ‘Which came first — the cayenne-spicy sandwich or the demographic hungry for it?’
“I noticed that there was a market for chicken here. A lot of international students don’t eat beef but do eat chicken. With Conestoga College students, we saw a market for that in the downtown core. With no hot chicken options, we saw that opportunity,” Darsot says.
The small takeaway — with only two tables inside — offers very popular platters of fried chicken sandwiches, tenders, waffle fries and coleslaw; bite-sized nuggets; cheese fries; and fries with tikka sauce, mint chutney, pickles, fries and slaw.
Darsot says the differentiation that makes it the king of the roost is their Indian seasonings and condiments, made in-house, like the mint chutney.
“We have chicken tikka sauce which is a fusion from our Indian background. It’s really popular and not just with the Indian student population here.”
Fried chicken with a retro vibe
Though the sky isn’t just yet falling on the seemingly ubiquitous shawarma, there is a similar sentiment expressed by the new Coop Wicked Chicken about the popular Middle Eastern wrap; the restaurant opened last summer with extensive renovations in the former Caper’s bar on Queen Street.
Long-time area restaurateur and general manager of the Kitchener location Corey Arnold says the small chain has identified a particular chicken demographic they hope will cross the road for their menu.
“Right now, fried chicken is huge, and shawarma is over-saturated. We’re a bar, and that’s our thing. Fried chicken and beer,” Arnold says.
There’s a Gen X retro vibe in the Coop with a touch of grunge and some in-your-face pop culture along with 80s and 90s tunes blaring from music videos on TVs.
Add to that, the striking contrast of black and red subway tiles, tags and graffiti, and chaotic fly-posting surrounding a long bar and lighted back bar. Garage doors can roll up in summer.
The chicken, fresh and not frozen, is brined and marinated for six hours before getting a dosing of a variety of secret spices and seasonings.
“It has a unique southern U.S. taste to it,” Arnold adds.
Top sellers are the OG Crispy with butter pickles and the Korean version with its sweet mild heat of gochujang and pickled ginger.
Another Coop Wicked Chicken is slated to open in Cambridge.
Regardless of whether indie restaurant or national chain, the restaurateur’s task of satisfying a wide range of fried-chicken customers seeking Nashville-style spice-heat can be a fraught one that might run afoul of customers, says Darsot.
“One person will say the blazing hot was not hot enough and should be three levels hotter. And then someone orders a mild and says they couldn’t eat it because it was too hot.”