Two hundred million years ago, the fried chicken scene in Minnesota had nothing to recommend it, but the group of theropod dinosaurs known as Coelurosauria was already on the scene. These coelurosaurs would eventually include the Tyrannosaurus Rex, obviously the best scary dinosaur, with enormous gnashing teeth and a destiny that would include a starring role on glowing stickers distributed at children’s birthday parties. The coelurosaurs, unaware of their highly marketable destiny, kept evolving, eventually morphing into all of the feathered birds we know today, especially the chicken. No, really. In 2003, esteemed paleontologist Jack Horner unearthed a T. Rex fossil in Montana that had trace amounts of collagen. Analysis revealed that T. Rex’s closest living relative is the domestic chicken; of seven amino acid sequences from that T. Rex, three matched chicken uniquely. In his 2009 book, How to Build a Dinosaur, Horner says: You start with a chicken, turn some genes off, others on, and voila. Turning genes on and off isn’t so wild—did you ever wonder why chickens lay eggs year-round, while robins or penguins only lay them in particular seasons? That’s because the gene which attaches chicken egg laying to seasonal triggers has been turned off. Of course, we know this because the entire chicken genome was sequenced years ago.
We know a lot about chickens. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, were the first to figure out how to really get chickens up to the full and incessant production of eggs we need for really good meringues and omelets, a feat they accomplished with vast complexes of incubators warmed by vents of air heated with burning straw and camel dung. Speaking of burning camel dung, that’s about how I would have characterized the general state of Minnesota fried chicken the last few years. After northside legend Lucille’s Kitchen closed (I am still in mourning), we entered into a strange lull, with a few longtime stalwart places offering decent fried chicken (Rooster’s in St. Paul comes to mind), a few offering excellent fried chicken but wing-only (Art Song’s Wings in St. Paul and the Country Bar & Grill and C&G’s Barbecue in Minneapolis), and a very few chefs offering the stuff in brief seasonal summer windows (Icehouse, HauteDish, and Wise Acre). What of the Minnesotans who want exceptional fried chicken year-round and not just the wings? I am happy to announce that after a 200-million-year wait, we have something very exciting happening in the world of fried chicken. What no one saw coming is that it’s all in the world of Asian, and especially Korean-influenced, fried chicken. Yes, this double-fried way of getting extra-crisp chicken has been rocking the coasts for the past few years, but it hit Minnesota with critical mass over the last few months, and it’s almost as surprising as knowing that Scotch eggs and macarons derive from dinosaurs—plus it’s a lot easier to swallow.
JFC at moto-i
There was a young man who was Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s sous-chef at his eponymous New York restaurant for five years, and that young man fell in love with a Minnesota girl, and they had a baby, and . . . we all know how this fairy tale ends, right? With chef Omar Gillego turning out the best fried chicken in the history of Minnesota! It’s called the JFC (a pun on KFC, of course), for Japanese Fried Chicken, and it derives from a complicated fine-dining-type process that involves 24 hours in a rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, and scallion-infused brine; another couple hours in the same house-milled rice flour that is otherwise used for sake production; and a trip through the fryer, which renders the chicken skin cracker-crisp and the meat absolutely something you want to gnaw with great abandon. This magical JFC is served with a mound of quick pickled-cabbage—a coleslaw crackling light salad that goes gorgeously with the chicken—so you can take a bite of terrifically intense and meaty chicken, then have a zippy palate cleanser, and then keep doing this over and over until the joint closes at 2 am.
Gillego’s menu at moto-i also includes another of the Twin Cities’ best fried chicken options, high-class chicken nuggets known as chicken kara-age, marinated in fresh ginger and other goodies for hours before a trip through the fryer, a squirt of basil mayonnaise, and a destiny as that sort of bar food that makes bar life worth living. For those wondering if there are any non-fried dishes in which to taste this Jean-Georges-trained talent, direct your attention to the spectacular hamachi bowl: sushi-grade hamachi plated simply over a spoonful of rice resting upon a glaze of citrus emulsion made with lemon, lime, and orange with a little confetti of nori. It’s the sort of dish that is both adventurous and the essence of simplicity, one of the hardest tricks to pull off. But not as hard a trick as turning around the Herkimer, that legendarily awful Uptown brewpub that is sister restaurant to moto-i.
As of this writing, Gillego had just taken over the kitchen at the Herkimer and was starting to redo the menu. Some of the first changes include redoing the spot’s burgers and introducing daily breakfast, featuring pancakes and biscuits and gravy. Could the first really good chicken and waffles be in the offing for our fair cities? That’s a lot less far-fetched than an acolyte of Jean-Georges Vongerichten taking over the Herkimer, frankly.
2940 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-821-6262, moto-i.com
Green Spoon Café
Korean fried chicken is a special sort of fried chicken: cut into smaller pieces than traditional American fried chicken to cook more evenly, double-fried to cook more crisply, and served with a finishing drizzle of sweet or soy sauce to amp up the flavor. Minnesota got some of its first Korean fried chicken this spring when the cute, modern, always slightly odd U of M area Green Spoon added it to the menu. I say slightly odd because the place opened with a strangely bifurcated menu: Buffalo chicken wraps dominated one half, and then in a corner there’d be a little bulgogi. The spot has greatly expanded its Korean offerings, which is all to the good: The kimchi jeon pancake is sweet and spicy and beautiful next to a beer, and that goes quintuple for the Korean fried chicken, which has a batter coating as thin as a soap bubble and as crisp as Cap’n Crunch. I like mine with the final coating of sauce on the side, to keep the crunch intact. Your best bet: Get a friend and split the option for a half-chicken, two Miller Lites, and a green onion salad for $22.99—that’s Korean bar snacking at its best, all crisp salt chicken and ease.
2600 University Ave. SE., Mpls., 612-208-0529, greenspooncafe.com
Hong Kong Noodle
Those who like their fried chicken hot—super hot—should report to Hong Kong Noodle for their “salt and pepper chicken wings” from the appetizer menu. They are plump and meaty wings crisply fried, then attacked by a gloriously imposing missile array of hot dried Chinese peppers and an accompanying spritz of dried ground chilies, scallions, and sesame oil. It’s a spicy great mess of chicken that more people need to know about.
901 Washington Ave. SE., Mpls., 612-379-9472, mnhongkongnoodle.com
The Left Handed Cook
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Thomas Kim is a talented chef with a white-tablecloth cooking background who moved here for the love of a good Midwestern woman, and he is making waves with his Asian-influenced fried chicken. No, you have not heard this one before—the woman in this case is from North Dakota (Kat Melgaard, the restaurant’s co-owner) and the important chef-mentors are Roy Yamaguchi and Nobu Matsuhisa, which is evidently how we get glorious fried chicken in Minneapolis. And the fried chicken here is indeed glorious: It’s light as a cloud, from the tempura-inspired batter, and fantastically complex, infused with dozens of different herbs and spices, including but not limited to pasilla, ginger, orange peel, sesame, and multiple chili powders. This combination of lightness and complexity creates the kind of food that makes you want to eat more of it while you’re eating it—and has made The Left Handed Cook a citywide dining destination. This fact informs another fact, namely that the chefs are expanding later this year with a Korean gastropub in the Midtown Global Market, which may well evolve into a venue for even more chicken wonders, perhaps making Minnesota a national chicken destination? Hey, why not? If we can get chickens out of dinosaurs, we can surely evolve a national fried chicken scene from a rock-solid foundation such as this. Midtown Global Market,
920 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-208-0428, Facebook.com/TheLeftHandedCook