For a guy that complains so often about homogeny of décor in the nouveau restaurant scene, I sure as hell visit a shit ton of hipster cafés, bistros, and brasseries. I think it is a lot to do with the prices. Sitting down for meal that costs anywhere upward of thirty quid, effectively means me having to live hand to mouth because most of this job comes off my own back. It hurts more on days where the food stinks and they charge me the cheque and a finger.
But there are some days where I leave a restaurant joyful, despite the insides of my pockets fluttering in the wind and having nubs where fingers once were. There are also others where I leave just as happy, having spent next to nothing. It is for this feeling I persist, and for this reason I suffer through the faint scent of beard oil and the sight of pale skin under ripped jeans.
It is a lottery these days. A game of Russian roulette with more than slightly uneven odds. The newer places that have opened up in the last few years, especially those in and around Soho, are all ones striving either for stripped-back simplicity, radical fusion or responsible sourcing as concepts that herd in the millennial folk. I too am drawn like a fly to a zapper, and have been duly zapped when the marketing scheme and façade, paper over bad cooking. But until I start earning enough money to buy passage into the foodie citadel of London, I shall have to resign myself to the ups and downs of dude-ness, bro culture and English tapas.
Saying all that, I must admit the fancier places seem too much of a faff anyway. I can’t be arsed to deal with the frippery of tablecloths, dress shoes and false pretences on the weekly. If the best food available requires you to spend more time in front of a mirror than you do waiting for a starter, and spend more money on that starter than you would on a main and dessert in another establishment, then I’m probably not going to visit too often. Or at all.
However, this particular day out called for a celebration. I’d just got notified a decision had been made on my visa, which effectively meant I could travel away for Christmas with not much time to spare.
While I would like to say it was never in doubt, and that my application was impeccable and pristine, being told that your passport would arrive from the High Commission of India within ten days when you are scheduled to travel in six, does make you sweat a bit.
But now with passport in hand, a pasta place, a curry spot and a fried chicken joint were the options before me. Pasta sounded nice, and the allure of tiramisu was strong, but the courses seemed too heavy for lunch. Curry sounded great at first, but I thought myself out of going. Having to queue up at lunch time did not seem appealing in the slightest. Also, the way both restaurants were described in their press releases and preliminary reviews warned me that I’d perhaps need to wear a shirt. An inconvenient proposition, especially since I intended to head straight for a Krav Maga session a couple of hours later.
If the name ‘Chick’n’Sours’ was not enough of a hint, then perhaps the many cartoon cockerels lined up on the glass outside would settle any doubts as to what this place served. You enter through the glass door into a narrow passageway, kitchen on the left and welcome counter to the right. A staircase in front of you leads ominously downwards, the glow of dim lights shines from below, with the faint sound of chatter and music vibrating through the floor boards.
On noticing me, the lady at the desk excused herself from a gent who was trying to book a table for his squad, and proceeded to lead me downstairs with a menu. Apparently most large tables were booked for the week, so the guy was putting in a booking in case of cancellation. I don’t think I’ve ever done that: put my name down in the hope somebody cancelled. I always just went somewhere else. In a place like London, there is always somewhere else. But it seemed to me, by the look on the man’s face, and the apologetic resignation on that of the desk lady, that not only did this scenario reoccur often, but also that to certain people, there was no real alternative to Chick’n’Sours. This excited me.
The Chick’n’Sours restaurant and bar space downstairs presented to be the quintessential hipster den, with the only unique additions being the ornately grooved tiled tables, chandeliers the shape and size of disco-balls formed with latitudinal links of crystal, and a large mirror that expanded the cosy basement. My table in the corner of the concrete walled room gave me perfect vantage point for observation. I heard the odd snippet of conversation. Something about the quality of English football to my left, and a sentence about posh taxidermy to my right. I was intrigued by the latter, but I mistakenly made inquisitive eye contact with the woman speaking, and thus had to divert attention elsewhere. A school boy error indeed.
Customers seemed to be walking up and down the stairs randomly, until their faces became familiar, and then I realised they were staff. Without any uniform, wearing hoodies, printed tees and skinnies, each of them could just have easily sat down at a table and become one of us.
What fascinated me was the diverse mix of people that were there. A large table was being occupied by the indigenous bearded and beanie-headed flannel wearers, but two others were occupied by men in suits, another by a man that could have been old Einstein’s descendent – what with his electric hair and overall professor look, and another by a rotund mother and young son. While the space emanated an adherence to the hipster stereotype, the fact that Chick’n’Sours seemed so variously patronised let me know this was a place where pilgrims came, from all walks of life, for great fried chicken.
Spurred on by the delectable plates descending onto the tables around me, burgers the size of human heads, mirror glazed wings and crisp fillets that made me prematurely masticate, I ordered as many chicken dishes off the Asian infused Chick’n’Sours menu as I thought I could manage. Beyond the music and the amalgamation of voices was a harmonious undertone of crackling crunches, reverberating hums and sighs of satisfaction that I desperately wanted to be a part of. There was even a synchronised table thump as the two businessmen sat right beside me bit into their first wing. Oh baby, I was in the promised land.
The Kung Pao chicken wings at Chick’n’Sours was an event. With breading resiliently crisp despite the thick coating of orgastic spicy sweet sauce, the succulent caress of dark meat underneath, which easily slipped off the bone with a tug, made me want to the stand on my chair and dance. The pertinent textural touch of peanuts and spring onion, with a mess of Szechuan chilli was utterly picaresque. If anyone looked under my table, they would have seen my feet trembling.
I had no doubt that their popcorn chicken would bury any other iteration in the city, every piece generously plump with a craggy coating seasoned close to godliness. The kewpie mayo I ordered in accompaniment provided that perfect balanced dunk, both creamy with a subtle vinegary kick that made me swoon. Oh, and their K-Pop burger. Not to be forgotten. Strategically timed to arrive a few minutes after I recovered from the first two plates, was nothing short of magnificent. Filled with a piquant crunchy slaw combined with gochujang mayo moistened fried chicken fillets between perfectly prepped buns, was monstrous yet sophisticated in a way that worked charms on me like a skilled seductress. I was completely taken. Body, mind and soul enraptured by a fantastic episode that could well have been a dream.
When my eyes opened after my short foodcoma, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t been using the baby wipes placed on the edge of the table. My lips, chin and fingers spoke of predatory carnage. I was like a confused Bruce Banner half naked in a landfill, or a werewolf awoken similarly clothed after a night of hungry frenzy. A critic absolutely debased, brought to his metaphorical knees by the food he usually dominates. Chick’n’Sours took me to that place of deep epicurean arousal where you realise your primordial self. And by the looks of people similarly stuck into a batch of wings, or chomping into a massive burger, it was a state ubiquitously experienced.
The fried chicken at Chick’n’Sours is bloody good, one of the best in a city filled with every kind possible from the Korean to the popular Southern fried. I cannot believe I even considered going anywhere else. I hear their sours are great too. I mean it is in the name. But I wouldn’t know since I completely forgot to order any. I guess I’ll have to go back. For work, of course.
Chick’n’Sours – 1A Earlham Street, Seven Dials WC2H 9LL
Starters £3.50-£9.00; Sandwiches £10.00-£12.00 ; Drumsticks and Thighs £9.00-£12.00; Salad £6.00 ; Tenders £8.00 ; Sides £3.50-£5.00