Last week the city’s food-loving, trend-devouring masses lost their collective minds when Momofuku debuted its fast-casual fried-chicken sandwich concept. In development for months, Fuku (163 First Avenue, no phone) transforms the tiny space that launched chef-mogul David Chang’s empire — first as the original Momofuku Noodle Bar and later as punk-rock tasting counter Momofuku Ko (now in snazzier digs on Extra Place) — into a standing-room-only joint banking on hot bird and fun-sloppy cocktails, like a michelada served in a Tecate can, the aluminum top slathered in proprietary Momofuku-brand Ssäm Sauce™ and rimmed with spiced salt.
In the seven days since Fuku threw open its doors and started a veritable mother-clucking chicken orgy, the accompanying social-media hype has been intense and heated, much like the flattened thighs the kitchen dunks in the fryer. Videos, photos, and live-blogs galore were broadcast on launch day, followed by PSAs announcing the shop’s two-day hiatus this past Monday, and its reopening two days later. An off-menu sandwich made headlines on day two. Utter the words “Koreano” and boom: You’ve got pickled daikon radish betwixt your buns instead of the pickled cucumbers that are standard. The “secret” swap bumps the price of the $8 sandwich a buck — a small price to pay to feel special, provided you’re the kind of person who pegs your worth to your knowledge of secret menu items.
And so now we are contemplating and scrutinizing a chicken sandwich, just as we did with ramen burgers and Cronuts, sushirritos and pizza cones. The only consolation is that this madness may eventually die down, leaving a functional, convenient restaurant that offers a well-executed, concise, and accessible menu.
For now there are lines of people down the block from open till close, managed by the friendly staff members as if they were shepherding a hungry flock. They take head counts in the name of comfort and safe occupancy, yet usher customers to a room that still feels plenty cramped at max capacity, even more so once you’re wedged into a counter space. It’s better than letting customers line up right at the door, but once inside there’s another, smaller line to stand in to place your order.
On my initial visit, I waited twenty minutes before stepping inside and another twenty between ordering and service. Eating without sitting isn’t the worst way to dine, but you’re certainly less likely to linger when you’ve been standing for an hour only halfway into a meal — even if it is a remarkable fried-chicken sandwich.
“Hot chicken!” a cook yells to chef Tony Kim as he lifts a basket of thighs from bubbling oil. Camera flashes light up the kitchen area while Kim fields questions from curious patrons. Down the line, someone’s buttering soft, wrinkled Martin’s potato rolls with “Fuku butter,” a condiment whose recipe remains a secret. If you can’t taste the butter, you might be too Fuku’d-up from the chicken’s tickling-hot habanero brine, the heat from which seems to fluctuate from batch to batch.
Make no mistake: This is a great sandwich, with fatty thigh meat crisped to an audible crunch and at the same time possessing enviable juiciness. The habanero heat from the brine is pungent and upfront but quickly dissipates. While sharing some creative DNA with Chick-fil-A’s signature snack, this sandwich is a loftier version. Most of the patty spills from the crumpled bun, the better to squirt the bird with Korean gochujang-style Ssam sauce or Heinz ketchup for bites of pure poultry. Try them separately or together, if you’re feeling devilish. Wedge-cut fries, the only spud style on offer, were unavailable on this inaugural trip.
Pre-assembled farro salads with kale, cabbage, and mandarin oranges are available as a side, which helps cool any lingering heat. By design, their consumption would seem to necessitate a tabletop, but at Fuku folks eat their food, snap their photos — and leave.
Fuku’s cocktails, from company bar director John deBary, deliver assertive spice and citrus and are worth sipping slowly, enjoyable as foils for the spicy chicken sandwich. And at least you can drink while you wait. I’ll retroactively raise my bright, zippy daiquiri to the unlucky stragglers left behind, like so many characters in an evangelical ascension story. They line the walls, numbered flags in hand, some waiting to leave, some eyeing the room for parties to finish up so that they can hover around a flat space upon which to put their metal trays.
It’s natural that people would be curious about a new David Chang project, but at the moment visiting Fuku feels like diving headfirst into a food-frenzy meat grinder, a harried thrill ride where the euphoria lasts as long as some Six Flags attractions. The restaurant’s operating hours — 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday — also make eating there a pain unless you work nearby during the week. Otherwise you’re forced to make a line-waiting weekend pilgrimage.
If tasting menus are like operas and food has become synonymous with performance, Fuku may well herald an age of restaurant as emotional roller coaster.