Remember way back when every fine-dining spot had to have its own bistro take on the burger? We remember it like it was five months ago—because it pretty much was. But now is the dawning of the age of the chickwich.
French fine-dining chefs are serving fried-chicken sammies in parking-lot pop-ups. Bunk has a killer version it's serving for Portland Beer Week. And Roost and Laurelhurst Market—two eateries we named among the top 100 restaurants in town in our annual guide—are serving posh takes on the chicken sandwich out of their side kitchen door and side parking lot, respectively. And, thank God, both use thigh meat instead of chalky chicken breast.
The five-napkin chicken at East Burnside farm-to-butcher steak house Laurelhurst Market is getting the most attention so far—in part because of brute visibility. There's a tent and table in the side lot, plus a 14-foot smoker that looks like the front of an old railroad steam engine, with clouds of poultry-flavored particles billowing into the air.
The lunch menu is simple, served every day but Tuesday, when Laurelhurst serves fried chicken out of the butcher shop instead. You get smoked chicken, or you get a sausage of the day, with sides. But there's nothing simple about the chicken. Head chef Ben Bettinger marinates a boneless thigh in a medium-spicy fresno pepper sauce he conceived after a farmer mistakenly gave him a fiery yellow pepper from Kosovo called a sarit gat—he'll go back to the Serbian pepper when he gets more. He then smokes and grills it to order, basting it in a mayo-vinegar Alabama-style white gold sauce to balance the pepper.
That saucy dark meat is delicious enough—moist to its core, penetratingly smoky, richly meaty and acid-spicy—that the $9 sandwich's potato bun and excellent slaw end up a distraction. Spring for the $11 platter instead, which serves the saucy chicken straight along with a crisp, lightly vinegared and dill-flecked cuke salad, plus that same note-perfect slaw on the side. It's the spirit of summer in some mythical land of Swedish-Serbian hillbillies. I expect to make a weekend tradition out of it.
The side lunch at rustic-domestic Belmont eatery Roost is even more bare-bones than Laurelhurst's. The 'wich isn't even on the restaurant's website or Facebook page. Though Roost started serving fried-chicken sandwiches last September, we found out about it only by seeing an ad in our own newspaper.
You beg like Lady and the Tramp at a kitchen-delivery side door with no sign, no menu and no markings except a little wood-cut bird. The $9 sandwich must be paid for with cash only—a stipulation waived by chef Megan Henzel when we looked sad and surprised—and eaten with store-bought chips on a couple outdoor picnic tables. You can add a drink for $2.
But whatever niceties are lacking in the delivery, the sandwich is all home-style charm. Opposite in spirit to Laurelhurst's summery smoked chicken, Roost's is made with a pair of plump, deep-fried pieces of gluten-free thigh, topped with a steak-thick pickled turnip and drowning in a dense, creamy tahini sauce. The bun's a burger bun, basted with aioli. It's weirdly simple, very rich and decadent as hell—like something served on a French plantation. It's all great except for those bagged chips; among packaged sides, a pickle is always preferred.
For the duration of the summer, I expect to make regular appearances at Laurelhurst. When winter becomes serious as a heart attack, I'll probably perch at Roost instead.