Fried chicken is clucking back into the spotlight, and it’s a tasty and not-too-pricey trend that chefs and eaters have been getting behind.
“Chicken is always comforting,” said Amanda Young, who has planned out the menu for the newly launched Coop Chicken + Beer. “There is nothing better to make you feel like you have been hugged than a plate of fried chicken.”
This reassuring dish has, in poetic theory, long soothed the soul of those who eat it, and if ever there was a time for consolation, the pandemic is it. Chefs agree, too, and over the last few months many restaurants have debuted pop-up fried chicken concepts. Some have decided to keep it on as long as they can, and others have enjoyed the crunchy, greasy glory of the bird for a shorter time.
The most recent places adopting the trend are Adam Branz’s Split Lip Chicken out of Ultreia (1701 Wynkoop St.) in Union Station, and the aforementioned Coop Chicken + Beer, which launched in an event space inside Wynkoop Brewing Company (1634 18th St.). Both started about the same time at the end of July, and neither are meant to be a permanent fixture — though that can always change.
“We thought that we just had to do something or we weren’t going to make it,” said Branz, adding that the staff of Ultreia and his personal friends have been pitching in to make Split Lip happen. “It has actually morphed into something just as fun” as Ultreia.
For Branz, Split Lip Chicken is a far cry from the Spanish tapas he prepares at Ultreia. But, he said, it speaks to his childhood and Southern roots. Hence, the Nashville hot fried chicken theme, which gets a Portuguese flare thanks to a spice mix featuring piri-piri pepper and chilies from the local farm Thistle Whistle.
“I just want to fry chicken and hang out right now,” said Branz as he worked the makeshift, mobile kitchen outside Ultreia. “I’m having a lot of fun with it and want it to go on as long as possible.”
The name Split Lip is thanks to his energetic son Arlo, and it’s a concept he has been imagining ever since the restaurants shut down in March. After about three months of planning how to make it happen and working on the recipe right outside the restaurant (because Ultreia doesn’t have a hood and frying inside an enclosed space is a smoky affair), Split Lip Chicken is now dishing out simple hot chicken platters featuring three spice levels, matcha tots, Mississippi-style slugburgers and pineapple soda to cool the heat. Find this pop-up sporadically in front of Ultreia and at breweries around town. Times and dates are found on the Instagram page, @splt_lip_chx, and on homemade punk rock paper fliers making the rounds.
Nearby, Coop Chicken opened up in the Mercantile room, a large space typically used to host parties and other events. It’s set up with a table to order food from, a cooler with drinks, and adequately distanced tables inside. Take the fried and rotisserie chicken (which can be had plain or on sandwiches, salads and pizza) home, eat it there, or order from the menu if dining in the brewery space. There’s also a market-like aspect with chicken stock, biscuits, bowls of fruit, chips and packaged sides for purchase to go.
“We are super excited to see where it can take us. Who knows what it will be like tomorrow, but we are going with the flow and keep it going as long as it makes sense to us,” said Young, who is also the director of operations for the company. “It could morph into a full-time menu for us.”
Before these two concepts launched, Troy Bowen of Noble Riot decided to start dishing out take-out fried chicken through the wine bar by using the kitchen at its sister spot, Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club, which was closed completely during the shutdown.
RELATED: Your favorite wine bar might just become a fried chicken takeout spot to survive the coronavirus shutdown
“We had plans to do this and had done menu testing in February and March, just because fried chicken and champagne is just one life’s best pairings,” said Bowen. “We call ourselves a hospitality factory, and the chicken and the wine are just part of it.”
The fried chicken was supposed to debut on the new menu, and even though it took a while to find footing after the March shutdown, Bowen decided to still do it. All the chicken is gluten-free, too, a rare bird when it comes to this particular dish.
“It was a tiny distraction from the craziness that was happening and it ended up working well and helped us establish the connection with our guests,” said Bowen, who happened to be in Restaurant Depot when news of the shutdown launched, allowing him to stock up on to-go containers before the rush of people. “It is a delicious thing to bring home to your family, which is great for folks who still want to have the experience but can’t go out with the kids and the dog and all those things.”
Shortly after Noble Riot launched its fried chicken, chef Max MacKissock started a fried chicken and champagne pop-up at the contemporary French restaurant Morin downtown. That lasted a few weeks, and there is talk that it will be back. At Pony Up, also downtown, chef Sheamus Feeley and his business partner Angela Neri did a bird-and-bubbles pop-up on Sundays.
“We did it because it was comfort food and we had a great recipe,” said Neri, who served the special for about a month before switching to a new concept, the latest being a Mission-style burrito pop-up on Aug. 17 and 18. “The idea was to feed your family of four along with a bottle of Champagne for $60, which was cool. I think everyone got on the bandwagon.”
The trend isn’t over, either. Coming up, Elise Wiggins will launch Lil Yellow Chick, something she thought of more with her neighborhood in mind.
“One thing about COVID is it’s so stressful on all of us, it’s just changed our world, and I want people to forget themselves, even if it’s just for a few minutes and have fun while they are picking up their food,” said Wiggins. “Plus, it’s a great go-to comfort food, and a lot of people are happy to have it.”
Like Branz and Feeley, Wiggins also has Southern roots, and will be bringing flavors from childhood to her new concept. Though Wiggins plans on keeping Lil Yellow Chick as a permanent eatery, she also feels the pressure of the economy and uncertain future of restaurants, so she’s opening up the new joint in a renovated 1962 yellow Shasta parked outside Cattivella (10195 E. 29th Drive) in Central Park (the former Stapleton).
“I thought, what if we did a food truck and made it cute and clever and did fried chicken and permanently parked it out here,” said Wiggins, who noticed the lack of fried chicken and Southern food in the area. “I thought this would be a perfect fit and, economically, it made no sense thinking about getting another restaurant going.”
Lil Yellow Chick will open around Sept, 15.
Also opening soon, on Aug. 14, is Saucy Chix, owned by the people behind Morning Story. This fried chicken spot plans to launch two locations inside the already established Morning Story spots in Arvada (8025 Sheridan Blvd.) and Denver (560 S Holly St.), dishing out fried chicken tenders and sandwiches.
Bird may be the word that saves and/or helps restaurants survive the regulations, lack of customers, reduced seating and other issues that have arisen since COVID-19 became such problem.
Where else to get fried chicken right now
Not every place is open, but these spots have great fried chicken to take out and/or eat in-house. Make sure to check on new hours and procedures, and that each place follows the state protocol of wearing a mask save when dining at the table.
- Post Brewing Co.; multiple locations (postbrewing.com). Make a reservation to dine at one of the four locations or take your spicy and/or regular fried chicken to go.
- Steuben’s Uptown, 523 E. 17th Ave., 303-830-1001 (steubens.com). Get hot chicken and regular fried chicken from this Uptown spot either to go or dine at the restaurant.
- Tupelo Honey Cafe, 1650 Wewatta St., 720-274-0650 (tupelohoneycafe.com). Honey-dusted fried chicken is the main bird here, and diners can order a family feast to go or dine out on the downtown restaurant’s patio.
- Welton Street Cafe, 2736 Welton St., 303-296-6602 (no website). Order takeout from this beloved Five Points spot; it’s some of the best Southern-style fried chicken in the city.
- Work & Class, 2500 Larimer St., 303-292-0700 (workandclassdenver.com). Each Sunday, chef Dana Rodriguez makes some of the best fried chicken around. The space is small and running at low capacity, so get there early for the first-come, first-serve tables.
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