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Dan Delaney, a man who once put a smoker on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment so that he could sell brisket to an underground network of meat lovers, is not one to do things halfheartedly.
It all started back in April of this year, when Delaney told the Voice he had the opportunity to get into UrbanSpace Vanderbilt, the new food court just behind Grand Central Terminal. “Chicken. We’re doing fried chicken,” Delaney said, imagining the future. “If we do barbecue, we’ll have to bring it in. The kitchen is too small. But fried chicken we can make on site. We can do biscuits. We can do different sides. I really think it will work great!”
At the time, chill winds swept down Bedford Avenue, and customers huddled at the rustic tables inside Delaney BBQ, eating ribs like they were planning on hibernating.
“Here’s the thing,” Delaney said. “Everyone is doing dredged chicken — in seasoned flour, or with breadcrumbs. And that’s fine. That’s the classic way of doing it. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to do a Southern-style fried chicken. It’s going into a wet batter, so the texture is very different.”
Delaney reported that he got a fryer for his apartment and started experimenting: “I just do it over and over. My friends come over and eat all the chicken and I start again.” At a certain point, Delaney cracked it. “So first we brine the meat in a traditional brine — water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and spice. Then we let it get really dry in the fridge. Next we toss it in seasoned flour, dip it in a buttermilk-based batter, and fry it. It’s light and flaky, with layers of batter — almost like a wafer.”
So with the chicken well on its way, the focus turned to the space. He was going for a different vibe from the barbecue, with “more of a Fifties soda fountain look to it, to show it’s a different business, because who knows where this could grow.”
And why not? This past spring, all signs were pointing to 2015 being The Year of the Fried-Chicken Sandwich, with Fuku, El Cortez, Root and Bone, Sweet Chick, Pies ’n’ Thighs, Burger and Barrel, and Birds & Bubbles bringing chickens for every taste and every Instagram. Chick-fil-A was headed to town. And then Danny Meyer debuted the Chicken Shack chicken sandwich, and people lost their minds up and down Fulton Street. It was the stuff of dreams — chicken-filled dreams.
When we checked in with Delaney at the beginning of June, three weeks away from the projected opening date, he was calm but not quite so confident. “I feel like we’re on track,” he’d said, “but there are so many things that are not under our control. We’re working on schedules and staffing. That’s a problem, because you can’t hire people before you’re ready to go — because you have to pay them. It’s hard to know when that should happen. If we’re opening one day late, that impacts us.”
June came and went. And no sign of an opening date.
But still there was progress: “We have now finally sourced the chicken!” the announcement went. It was no simple task, since organic free-range birds are less likely to be of uniform size, which is important for consistent cooking and browning. “We put the chicken on the menu at BrisketTown this week,” Delaney reported at the time. “Luckily, people seemed to like it. It’s great to have a dish that you totally stand behind! Would be good to get in the space, though…”
We checked in again in August: “Opening soon?”
“Ugh. Nope. Still waiting on gas,” came Delaney’s reply.
On August 14 a call came in — “We’re on for Wednesday! Gas and everything!”
A month in, a brief chicken shortage was resolved. “At first we didn’t know if we needed to make 70 or 700 sandwiches,” Delaney admits. “It took awhile to understand the ebbs and flows, but now we’ve pretty much got the hang of it. Now we’re refining the recipe. We love the chicken straight out of the fryer, but what’s the texture of the sandwich like if you carry it six blocks to your office? Is it still crispy? Does it get soggy?”
Now, at last, the sandwich has arrived: flaky, crisp batter coating a deep bite of chicken draped with butter pickles and pillowed on a soft burger bun. It’s simple and deeply satisfying, with all the Southern comfort you could want, evoking a This is a huge treat! fast-food feeling from childhood, but in a thoroughly adult context — well worth the wait.
The last time we talked to Delaney, he was lying down and eating a burger, which he said means he’s feeling extremely happy with his lot in life. “It’s exhausting, but things are going well. We’re ready to bring in new menu items — a salad, a different sandwich, even breakfast. And I’m looking at other potential venues. Basically, all exciting. It’s been a journey, but it’s been great!”