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Review | Little Chicken is a downtown playground built with a lot of hard work

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The three guys behind Little Chicken, that fowl playground on the ground floor of Midtown Center, took a multiday tour of the South last year to conduct a fact-finding mission. They wanted to see if they could unlock the mysteries of great Southern fried chicken. The seasonings. The fry technique. The dredge. Whatever they could learn.

But first they had to find some quality samples. So Casey Patten, Gerald Addison and Chris Morgan ate chicken. They ate a lot of chicken. By their own estimation, they visited 60 establishments in Charleston, S.C., Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville, and many places in between. And that number “could be low,” says Patten, the Philadelphia native who co-founded Taylor Gourmet and later opened Grazie Grazie after his original sandwich empire went belly up.

Of all the birds they sampled, one in particular stood out: the deep-fried specimens at Price’s Chicken Coop in Charlotte. At the time, the trio didn’t realize how fortunate they were to try the signature dish at Price’s, which would close just months after their visit, another victim of the pandemic. They did realize, however, how special the chicken was.

“That was the one where it just hit on all cylinders. It was kind of like the aha moment,” says Morgan, who, along with Addison, is also co-owner of Bammy’s in Navy Yard. “I don’t think I could truly identify in that moment … what it was that they did to achieve” this perfection.

But the guys tried. Addison says they sat around on the street outside Price’s for an hour, pooling their collective knowledge into dissecting the chicken. “We were kind of just trying to distinguish, like, ‘What is that flavor? What is, like, giving it that oomph?’ ” Addison says. They never did quite figure it out.

I can identify with their plight. The first time I tried a three-piece box from Little Chicken, my brain went through a series of thoughts with the speed of a computer processor: This is excellent bone-in chicken. There’s something in the seasoning. I can’t identify it, but it’s more than the usual suspects: salt, black pepper, paprika, dried herbs and garlic powder. What is it?!

Like the guys outside Price’s, I sat and pondered that bird, hoping the next bite would trigger some synapse to release the answer like a gumball from a quarter machine. Nothing. I mentioned my own hapless interrogation of their chicken to the guys during a conference call. There was an uncomfortable pause.

“Well, we love that,” Addison says.

Addison didn’t mean that harshly, as if the guys were reveling in a little schadenfreude. He was just acknowledging, I think, a truth about good food of any kind: Sometimes the mystery only intensifies its pleasures. Then again, maybe the guys were just basking in their sleight of hand, this injection of flavor that is both a signature and a cipher, unidentifiable by traditional methods. Either way, none of the three were about to cough up their secrets, especially about these “couple of random things that we found were super important [to the chicken] and maybe not as obvious,” as Addison explains.

Little Chicken is curious in other ways, too. It’s a downtown restaurant — with a menu by Addison and Morgan, a pair of well-regarded chefs — that doesn’t take itself all that seriously. Inside the place, artist Nicolette Capuano has designed bold, graffiti-covered walls that feature one very plump, very angry chicken that seems to be indulging in an act of cannibalism. Some booths double as bird cages, and the patio bar features cocktails not just by the glass, but by the jug. Did I mention there’s an old-school shuffleboard outside, too?

The freewheeling attitude spills over to the menu, too. The partners have crafted a line of sandwiches that specialize in — if I had to narrow it down to a single word — excess. Their hand-helds are so loaded with toppings, condiments and sauces that the sandwiches tend to dump their load like an overturned tractor-trailer. The five-napkin burger has nothing on these babies.

This excess, of course, is in pursuit of flavor — big, sloppy, spicy bites such as the Pinky’s Out with its lava flow of crispy garlic sauce — but sometimes it comes at the expense of the chicken’s crunchy outer shell. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept with such creations as the Cluck Norris, a sandwich that comes slathered with pepper jelly, its sweetness declaring independence from the autocracy of chile peppers that seem to dominate the kitchen.

My favorite snacks and sides are the ones that tend to cut through the fryer oil, like the smoked trout deviled eggs draped with strands of pickled onions (though I wish the piped filling weren’t chilled to a doughlike mass) or the cucumber salad, which trades on crunch, acid and a light, cooling sweetness. The broccoli salad sounds like it has no place on the menu, but the bite-size florets, tossed with pine nuts and dried cranberries and a sour-cream-mayo-vinegar dressing, cleanse the palate better than any lemon sorbet. And that savory cornbread? I could eat a sheet pan of it, especially slathered with the accompanying whipped blueberry butter.

As the owners were developing recipes for Little Chicken, they discovered a fact little known to those outside the bird business: that running a chicken shop takes a lot of work if you want to maintain any sort of consistency, and even then some factors are beyond your control. Such as the size of your chickens or whether your supplier has enough cutlets to get you through the day.

I mention this because your chicken, like mine, might vary from one sandwich to another. One day, you might find a slab of fried breast meat as thick as a Russian novel (pre-Kindle version, that is). The next day, you might discover a pair of tenders subbing for your cutlet. And the day after that, you might find the coating on your bone-in bird is twice as thick as on your previous order.

The image that pops to mind is not chickens, but ducklings learning to navigate unknown waters. On the surface, they look calm and sort of in charge. Beneath the water line, they’re paddling like crazy to maintain forward momentum. Little Chicken is a bit like that: Underneath its playful demeanor, you sense a crew cranking hard to hold it together, despite the challenges. I respect that.

1100 15th St. NW, on the ground floor of Midtown Center, 202-989-0292; justlittlechicken.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday through Sunday.

Nearest Metro: McPherson Square or Farragut North, with a short walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $4 to $42 for all food items on the menu.



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