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 estimate, they visited 60 locations in Charleston, SC, 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 collapsed.
Of all the birds they sampled, one in particular stood out: the fried ones at Price’s Chicken Coop in Charlotte. At the time, the trio didn’t realize how lucky 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 how special the chicken was.
“That was the one where it just hit all the cylinders. It was kind of an aha moment,” says Morgan, who also co-owns Bammy’s in Navy Yard with Addison. “I don’t think I could really identify at the time… what they did to “achieve this perfection.”
But the boys tried. Addison says they spent an hour on the street outside Price’s, pooling their collective knowledge to dissect the chicken. “We were just trying to differentiate, like, ‘What’s that taste? What’s, like, giving it that? oomph?’ Addison says. They never quite figured it out.
I can identify with their plight. The first time I tried a three-piece box of Little Chicken, my brain went through a series of thoughts at the speed of a computer processor: This is an excellent bone-in chicken. There’s something in the spices. 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 thought about that bird, hoping the next bite would activate a synapse to make the answer come out of a quarter vending machine like a gumball. Nothing. I mentioned my own unfortunate questioning of their hen to the boys on a conference call. There was an awkward pause.
“Well, we love that,” Addison says.
Addison didn’t mean that harshly, as if the boys indulge in a little glee. He was simply acknowledging, I think, a truth about good food of any kind: Sometimes the mystery only magnifies the joys of it. On the other hand, perhaps the boys were just basking in their sleight of hand, this injection of flavor that is both a signature and a figure, unidentifiable by traditional methods. Anyway, none of the three were about to cough up their secrets, especially about these “few random things we thought were super important [to the chicken] and maybe not so obvious,” explains Addison.
Little Chicken is curious in other ways too. It’s a downtown restaurant—with a menu from Addison and Morgan, a pair of renowned chefs—that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Inside, artist Nicolette Capuano has designed bold, graffiti-covered walls featuring a very plump, very angry chicken who seems to be indulging in an act of cannibalism. Some booths double as bird cages and the terrace bar offers cocktails not only by the glass, but also by the pitcher. Did I mention there is also an old-fashioned shuffleboard outside?
The freewheeling attitude also comes across on the menu. The partners have created a range of sandwiches that specialize in – if I had to limit it to a single word – excess. Their handhelds are so loaded with toppings, condiments, and sauces that the sandwiches tend to dump their load like a toppled tractor trailer. The five-napkin burger has nothing on these babies.
This excess is, of course, looking for flavor—big, sloppy, spicy bites like the Pinky’s Out with its lava flow of crispy garlic sauce—but sometimes it comes at the cost of the chicken’s crispy exterior. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept with creations like the Cluck Norris, a sandwich slathered in pepper jelly, its sweetness declaring independence from the autocracy of chiles that seem to dominate the kitchen.
My favorite snacks and side dishes are the ones that tend to cut through the cooking oil, like the smoked trout stuffed eggs draped with strands of pickled onions (although I wish the filling wasn’t refrigerated to a doughy mass) or the cucumber salad, which acts on crispness, sourness and a light, cooling sweetness. The broccoli salad sounds like it’s not on the menu, but the bite-sized florets, sprinkled with pine nuts and dried cranberries and a sour cream-mayo-vinegar dressing, clear the palate better than any lemon sorbet. And that savory cornbread? I could eat a sheet of it, especially slathered with the accompanying whipped blueberry butter.
When the owners were developing recipes for Little Chicken, they discovered a fact little known to those outside the bird world: that running a chicken shop takes a lot of work if you want to maintain any kind of consistency, and even then some factors are involved. ignored. your control. Such as the size of your chickens or whether your supplier has enough cutlets to get through the day.
I mention this because, like mine, your chicken can vary from sandwich to sandwich. 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 few tenders that fit your cutlet. And the day after, the coating on your bone-in bird may be twice as thick as on your previous order.
The image that comes to mind is not chickens, but ducks learning to navigate in unknown waters. At first glance, they look calm and in charge. Below the waterline they paddle like crazy to maintain the forward momentum. Little Chicken is kind of like this: Beneath its playful demeanor, you can feel a crew hard at work keeping 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 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Nearest metro station: McPherson Square or Farragut North, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4 to $42 for all food items on the menu.