That delectable bite is a union of the restaurant's signature smoked boneless chicken thighs, paired with a vinegar-laced Alabama-style white BBQ sauce, mixed with sweet-hot pepper sauce and some crunchy slaw. The textures and flavors dance together like a country love song—all texture and twang, sweetness and heat. It's one of the best things I ate in Portland in 2016.
Unfortunately, this is 2017, a dark timeline for America indeed. The wonderful original iteration of Big's Chicken—which appeared last summer as an outdoor grill stand next to Burnside meathouse Laurelhurst Market, serving chicken thighs, chicken sandwiches and a selection of market sausages—has transmogrified into a new counter-service restaurant on Northeast Glisan Street.
I was a huge fan of the original parking-lot chicken—I even took friends from out of town to eat there. And I'm glad to see that the remarkable chicken thigh and slaw dish is still on the menu ($12.50 with sides), with that red Fresno-pepper sauce augmented with an even better green sauce made with sarit gat Hungarian pepper.
But most of the new items at Big's are an exercise in disappointment.
The interior at Big's feels like the Estacada pavilion at Epcot, with dozens of scrapped Oregon license plates, cheap seats, wobbly tables and geographically indistinct pan-shitkicker kitsch. There is bluegrass music playing; there is TV sports on mute. And in the going Portland style, the staff is friendly, but it's a "get your cup over there" kind of service model.
Over five trips to the restaurant, my experience varied wildly. Big's dry-fried wings ($6.95 for 6) were dreadful on my first visit—equal parts bland and undercooked, with no crispy crunch to balance out the bone-to-meat ratio. I was ready to write them off, but on the final visit those wings improved dramatically (thanks to a change in purveyor), nicely seasoned with a house rub and perfect golden-crunchy texture. The elotes ($4.50) were also a high point, corncobs dressed in the house rub and covered in white BBQ and Fresno chile sauces.
Save for these, and the aforementioned slaw—which splits a wonderful difference between vinegary bistro slaw and the mayo-slathered picnic variety—the sides at Big's ($2-$5) range from bummer to woefully bad. The dirty rice is closer to sweet paella, while the dry-fried green beans are sloppy and sweetly soggy. The fried cauliflower with smoked tomato aioli reads better than it tastes, and the pickles (borrowed from the sandwich set) are unremarkable.
I'd hoped the creole gravy might serve as a kind of southern—or at least southern Oregon—answer to the curry and chicken combo at Killingsworth Thai spot Hat Yai. Instead, it was a greasy, bland mess. Though it came served in a huge portion for only $1.95, this gravy is worth only a couple of bites.
And then there are the jojos.
I'm no jojo purist, and this is not my jojo Jihad. But while they're already serving an astonishing 1,000 pounds of jojos here each week, I'd rather eat the jojos at Safeway than the ones at Big's ($2.95/$4.95, included in combos). They are frozen, pre-made and starchy to the point of evoking the dreaded plantain.
If you're lucky, your portion might contain a rare micro-jo—those had enough coating and crunch to be interesting, but by then we've moved into fry territory. These are sad jojos, bad jojos, and if you listen to the jojo purists, they might not really even be jojos at all, but rather, an appropriation of the term for in the name of kitsch factor. They are neither battered nor broasted, bro.
But the biggest problem at Big's Chicken is Big's whole chicken. The delicious signature thigh at Big's is sliced thin, affording better access to the house marinade (the same sweet Fresno chili sauce on your table)—a contributing factor to its juicy, flavorful goodness. But a whole bird ($22.95 with two sides) is an entirely different matter. Where there should be a balance of smoke and cooked meat and rub, there is instead a bland mountain of bird sugared up with sweet sauces.
Once you're past the sauce—which, being sugar, is good—and the first bit of juicy meat underneath the skin, it's the damndest thing. The chicken loses its flavor. It's just protein slathered in sweet sauce, with no hint of smoke, despite its journey over oak, cherry and apple wood in the kitchen's brand-new Cookshack electric smoker. Having gone back to try the chicken at Pollo Norte, El Inka, Podnah's and Chicken & Guns while writing this review—I really fucking like chicken, okay?—I can attest that Big's doesn't offer the best chicken in town; it's not even the best whole chicken on Northeast Glisan Street, an honor that goes to Pollo Norte.
There are two cocktails on the list, a Moscow mule ($7) and some kind of bourbon sour ($8), both oversweet, undermixed and ghastly. Luckily, there are $2 Oly pints alongside $5 craft brews from Fort George and Oakshire. For dessert, there is a forgettable flabby buttermilk pie ($4) served room temperature.
It's a shame. In its original smoky parking lot, Big's could have become a neighborhood landmark—a beloved seasonal tradition Portlanders looked forward to each year, in part because of the immediacy of getting your chicken straight from that outdoor smoker.
But by adding more stuff to the menu, and moving the concept into a restaurant, they made a great thing worse. I hope something else cool comes into that Laurelhurst Market parking lot and never, ever leaves. In the meantime, there's still a perfect bite to be had at Big's—thigh, slaw, sauce.
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