The term “comfort food” entered the dining lexicon, according to Merriam-Webster, in 1977 although many years passed before its use became widespread.
Various foods have made their orbits strapped to the rocket of this catch-phrase: macaroni and cheese, cupcakes, bacon, and anything containing bacon. Donuts gave cupcakes a run for their money; pies, in turn, gave donuts a run for their money. Pork belly rode bacon’s coattails and biscuits are coming on strong. Even the humble and ubiquitous hamburger was reborn as a fetish food and has become almost a secular form of religion in coastal cities, their lust for burgers perhaps induced by years and years of overusing tempeh and tofu.
Fried chicken seems to be the most recent type of comfort food to ascend into the sky. A few months ago, Ma ‘ono Fried Chicken & Whiskey opened on California Avenue in West Seattle. Formerly Spring Hill, the restaurant was recreated as a folksy, nostalgic, high-end treatment of the food chef Mark Fuller grew up with in Hawaii. Ma ‘ono serves juiced-up Hawaiian comfort foods, versions of saimin, musubi, and poke. And every night without fail, it sells out its marquee dish of katsu-inspired fried chicken.
The concept of comfort food might be a contemporary one, but the food itself has always been around. It used to be called, simply … food.
It was the food of family dinner tables and working-class diners. Once comfort food graduated to a concept — food that arouses our sense of nostalgia, and brings to mind our childhoods or memories of home — it slipped into fancy restaurants. At first it was used sparingly — a cheeky, whimsical comment on an otherwise high-minded menu — a hypothetical meatloaf Bourguignon perhaps, or mac’ and cheese spiked with truffles.
Eventually though whole restaurants were built around the concept, with no detectable wink or irony. Consider Local 360 in Belltown and others who used the same script.
Apparently, we require lots and lots of comfort. It's hard to narrow that down to any one cause: globalization, the arms race, global warming, the stock market, killer asteroids, cellulite, reality television, middle age, Kim Kardashian, are all reason enough to load up on lipids.
Comfort food is almost always high in fat or sugar or is otherwise bad for you from a nutritional standpoint. It is, for us, Euro-centric, with a high butter, cheese or potato quotient, although the definition of comfort food is evolving. Comfort is relative: Spam and macaroni salad in Hawaii, red beans and rice in the south.
Of all these foods, fried chicken has arguably the most universal appeal, loved in both hemispheres, in the Americas and in Asia. Southerners, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos all love fried chicken.
More specifically, guys love fried chicken. A bucket of chicken is to a guy what a tub of chocolate ice cream is to a woman: edible companionship and empathy when the human form is not available or not desirable. A man alone at home at 9 p.m. with a bucket of The Colonel’s secret recipe is either a very sad man, or is celebrating his solitude.
Ma ‘ono’s is among the few high-end treatments of fried chicken in Seattle (the Kingfish Café on Capitol Hill might be another). Seattle is not exactly a fried chicken mecca. Ezell’s is a local institution but is not packed out the door, nor does it out-compete all the KFC franchises in the city, or Popeyes in the outlying suburbs (the better of the two chains in my opinion). Korean fried chicken has busted out of Korea and landed in Lynnwood and Federal Way. Variations of Chinese-style fried chicken have niche followings from restaurant to restaurant.
Seattle does not seem to have an agreed upon standard when it comes to fried chicken, leaving the dish vulnerable to judgment. The reaction to the chicken at Ma ‘ono (an entire bird cut up into 10 pieces for $38 served with rice, kimchi, and dipping sauces) has been mixed. The dish used to be the Monday night special at the much lauded Spring Hill, Fuller’s original restaurant.
It was so popular, Fuller decided to offer it every day and use it as a vehicle for Spring Hill’s transformation. It is not served in unlimited amounts, so if you want one, you are asked to request one ahead of time when you reserve a table. I ate there a few weeks ago on a weeknight, arriving around 8 p.m.; I got the last bird.
Online reviews, unscientific as they are, suggest the Ma ‘ono chicken is not everyone’s deep fried ideal. Yelpers complain about the price, suggesting people, in general, have trouble viewing fried chicken as gourmet food. In fairness to Ma ‘ono, the dish, when a few sides are added, is pretty much an entire meal for three or four people.
The other frequent online criticism of Ma ‘ono chicken is how oily or greasy it is, an observation I am willing to attribute to that general Seattle fussiness when it comes to messy food. Fatty cuts of meat, fish with heads or bones still attached, greasy sandwiches have always been a tough sell in this town of hot yoga and weekend triathlons. Fried chicken, by definition, is oily. What part of “fried” do these people not understand?
Having said that, Ma ‘ono chicken is a twice-fried, heavily battered and breaded product, reminiscent of Japanese katsu. The chicken’s thick coating gives it a lot of texture, but also harbors a lot of oil. The chicken, which is brined and soaked overnight in buttermilk, is lightly seasoned and is more about the crunch and succulence than the flavor. My dining companion, a Southerner with plenty of fried chicken experience, was unimpressed.
Let’s be clear — Fuller is no slouch. Raised on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and of Asian heritage, he trained at the Culinary Institute of America before running the kitchen at the Dahlia Lounge. In 2009, he was selected one of the country’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine. He is something of Seattle’s answer to David Chang of Momofuku, who taught foodies to take ramen seriously.
The irregular reaction to Fuller’s fried chicken might just be an indication of the limits of the dish rather than the chef. Good fried chicken is a simple dish. More fuss is not always better. After a basic effort, fried chicken cannot be significantly improved.
I’ve had great fried chicken in the kitchens of friends, and the back seats of cars (a box of spicy Popeyes). Forced to name the best fried chicken I’ve encountered recently, I am compelled to point to Chicken Express, a family-run walk-up counter hidden in the rough of a senior apartment complex off Rainier Avenue South. Chicken Express is in a strip of businesses located on the ground floor of the apartment building, called Courtland Place at Rainier Court.
Chicken Express is run by a brother and sister, Vahid Asress and Sabrina Asress, who were both born in Eritrea but schooled in the United States, and their mother Fana Estifanos, who does all the cooking, a self-taught skill refined after a career as a flight attendant for Ethiopian Airlines. Their restaurant is not easy to find, located at the end of a parking lot that looks like a side street.
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