It was all very civilized, and no one seemed put out. I patiently waited about 20 minutes for my number to be called and then another 20 minutes for my takeout fried chicken - in this case, with tangy honey ginger glaze. It was so good that I scarfed down all four pieces in my car before driving back to my office in University City.
"You went all the way down to Pennsport and waited 40 minutes for takeout fried chicken?" said a friend when I returned. "Are you effing insane?"
My first thought: This is why I didn't bring you any. Second thought: If I'm insane, there are a lot of insane people walking the streets these days. We seem to be part of a quasi-cult, seekers of the city's finest fried chicken.
Not the Colonel's
The fried-chicken trend, which hit Philadelphia a little late and emerged slowly over the past two years, has clearly entered its baroque phase, and the chicken cognoscenti now look beyond the classic southern-fried version.
That's not to say that great old-school fried chicken doesn't exist. Check out a mainstay like Ms. Tootsie's RBL on South Street, or newcomer Roost, which opened in West Philly last spring, or David Katz's wonderful Thursday lunch special at Meme near Rittenhouse Square: chicken, biscuit and Miller High Life for $11.
However, the fowl of the moment, the bird that's become the foodie darling, is that other KFC - Korean fried chicken. And if Korean chicken has become the height of trendiness, then it's very possible that the most influential place in the city might be Café Soho on Cheltenham Avenue in East Oak Lane.
Café Soho is an odd spot with a vibe that's more lounge than restaurant - loud Top 40 dance music, TVs flashing and lots of red. We ate seated in black captain's chairs. Café Soho is best known for its wings, in particular the soy-garlic and the spicy wings, served 20 pieces at a time in foil-lined wooden bowls. I love very spicy wings, and I rarely find really good ones in the city like these, in which the flavor still comes boldly through even as the tears form in my eyes.
When my dining companion told her co-worker about eating at Café Soho, the woman raved about the wings as "an orgasmic dining experience in which I can't help but moan."
Michael Solomonov, impresario of Zahav and Percy Street Barbecue, who created Federal Donuts along with partners Steve Cook, Bobby Longue, Tom Henneman and D'Ambrosio, is a big fan of Café Soho wings. Solomonov even name-checked the place in Food and Wine magazine not long ago. When he created his own chicken, Solomonov said, "Café Soho was definitely on my mind."
So what is Korean fried chicken? The trick is that the chicken is twice fried at much lower temperatures than typical American fried chicken.
In the case of Federal Donuts, the chicken is brine-cured overnight with a sea-salt-and-spice blend. The result is one juicy, crispy bird that sells for $15 whole, $8 for half.
Addressing the drama
Before Federal Donuts' opening, I tasted all five preparations: two glazes (a Cafe Soho-influenced chili-garlic as well as the subtle, fresh honey ginger) and three spices (harissa, the unexpected buttermilk ranch and the Zahav-inspired Za'atar).
I can see why there's so much drama at 11:45 a.m. over getting a Post-it. And yes, when we're talking about trendy chicken, we must absolutely address the drama.
Drama mostly exists because there's always the chance you won't be able to get your hands on the chicken of your choice. There was a loud, exasperated sigh, for instance, when Meritage took its Korean chicken off the menu this summer. And there has been an awful lot of hand-wringing in the past year or so over the Korean-style chicken at Resurrection Ale House on Grays Ferry Avenue.
After Bon Appetit named Resurrection's chicken one of the country's 10 best in 2010, things got weird. The chicken got so popular that the restaurant printed "The Cockamamie Rule About the Chicken" on the menu, which read: "Yes, it is true, our Twice Fried Chicken might be some of the most written about chicken in the history of all chickendom, however, we are only able to prepare so many orders per day. In an effort to spread the chicken love around, we limit each table to 3 orders of fried chicken. Thank you for understanding. You will be rewarded in chicken heaven."
For mysterious reasons, the fried chicken was taken off the menu in late 2010. It made a cameo appearance every once in a while. And then, right before Federal Donuts opened (a coincidence, I'm certain), the chicken reappeared on the menu.
It took me three visits to reacquaint myself with Resurrection's chicken because they kept selling out, but when I finally ate it at the bar, I had to declare that this fried chicken is still probably the best in the city - though only by the slightest of feathers.
The next best thing
Now, as Korean-style fried chicken becomes ubiquitous in our fair city, we fried-chicken thrill-seekers continue our search for the next thing. I think we've probably found it at Wah-Gi-Wah, a small, neon-signed Pakistani halal place in West Philly.
Wah-Gi-Wah - which has become a food-writer fave over the past few months - is popular with the South Asian community. When I picked up my chicken last Sunday, an entire Pakistani cricket team dressed in their whites were dining at the front table.
I can't recommend the chicken Chargha at Wah-Gi-Wah highly enough. Instead of being brined and battered, the chicken Chargha is butterflied and rubbed with spices like cumin, chili powder and garlic.
It marinates for hours before being fried to order. The whole bird (only $12) is served splayed lasciviously and ready to dig in with your fingers.
It is like no fried chicken I've ever tasted. How long will it be until the crowds follow and the drama begins?
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.