According to the Chinese zodiac, we have recently begun the year of the sheep, but I don’t believe it for a second. This year, 2015, is clearly the year of the chicken.
Chicken, that bane of many a Wednesday night dinner at home, has been making a play at an eclectic variety of restaurants around Atlanta. Le Bilboquet, a pricey brasserie in Buckhead, serves a $25 Cajun chicken entree that consists of two spice-dusted boneless, skinless breasts that are cooked nicely, sliced and fanned over a butter sauce. I ask you: When was the last time boneless, skinless chicken breast was the signature entree at a hot, new restaurant? 1982?
The rotisserie chicken may not get star billing at the westside’s perpetually jamming Bartaco, but consider it the supporting player that steals the show. Order the crisp and juicy $8 half bird, avail yourself of the salsas set on each table, and you won’t miss the tacos. I think they should call the place Barchicken.
The spatchcocked chicken at Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall, an Old Fourth Ward restaurant that faces the Beltline, may cost $38, but it comes accompanied with everything except drum majorettes heralding its arrival. Salsas, salads, roasted potatoes and heaps of grilled vegetables and warm tortillas turn this bird into a feast that can cover a picnic table. You should come hungry, very hungry, and wonder why you don’t order chicken in restaurants more often.
Now, we have Pijiu Belly, a small beer bar on the westside across from Georgia Tech, where the Korean-style chicken that comes off the kitchen’s $7,000 rotisserie is a minor wonder. Owner Lenny Shou and chef William Little coat the chicken liberally with Korean chile powder and honey and roast it to peak juiciness. For good measure, they run it through the deep fryer until the skin, sandpapery with spice, snaps and crackles.
What else is on the menu? Not much, which is part of the charm of Pijiu Belly. Shou, who owns the three-branch local chain of Noodle restaurants, keeps things in tight focus at this Asian beer bar. (Pijiu is the Chinese word for beer.) The menu lists only a handful of snacks and sandwiches, and though you could get a cocktail, what you really want is one of the craft beers on tap.
In this regard, Pijiu Belly couldn’t be more dissimilar to Noodle, a decent-enough spot with a broad menu designed to satisfy a hankering for Asian-ish food. Pijiu Belly, with its dart board and picnic tables, feels more confident in its mission as a pub where you can taste the real flavors of Shou’s native Korea.
While it can be a huge mess to eat, the Pijiu Burger is something you’ll want in your life. The patty arrives piled with house-made kimchi and pickles (both great) as well as a fried egg and a beer-barbecue sauce. (Think of a mixture of Korean gochujang chile paste and K.C. Masterpiece.)
“Be careful of the egg,” our waitress warns us. “It tends to, um, squirt pretty far.”
Too late! My daughter had already chomped down, and after five frantic minutes of cleaning egg off her skirt, she declared it the best burger ever. I grabbed a couple of bites and can attest that it all works.
I was wary of a pork belly sandwich with sweet peach hoisin glaze — it sounds so wrong — but it proved lovable. The strips of meat come crisp and well rendered of fat, while the sweet glaze gets a counterbalancing shot of flavor from gingery pickled cucumbers. Add in a heap of crisp, hot skin-on fries and a pint of beer and life is good.
You might start with some decent cured meats and cheeses or a not terribly good version of poutine, where the beer barbecue sauce proves too sweet. You will recognize the loaded nachos (canned black olives, tricolor chips) from every cheap bar of your misspent youth, and though the mini corn dogs look like small bites of fun, their spongy batter and boring hot dog insides will disavow you of that notion.
Bag it, you want chicken. It comes on a tray — $10 for a half, $17 for a whole — with all the traditional Korean accompaniments, including chile sauce and cubes of lightly pickled daikon. Shou says this chicken dinner is a popular “source of protein for middle class people” in Korea. When he was growing up, he looked forward to the nights when he’d see his dad come home with a grease-stained brown paper bag. (That reminds me of my own youth, and the joyous sight of red-and-white cardboard buckets.)
Korean chicken is often batter fried, but Shou chose to go with the rotisserie and fryer method to keep it juicier. As an added bonus, it feels healthier — all the crackly pleasure of fried chicken without the excess of grease.
Chicken invites beer, and there are plenty to try. I’m not a fan of the Thai wheat from Second Self Beer Co., which has such a strong ginger and lemongrass flavor it tastes like Thai carryout. But the Bibo, a Czech-style pilsener from Creature Comforts, proves a natural match for this food.
When I talked to Shou, he told me that in the next few months he will begin serving more straight-out Asian dishes on the menu, including a Korean dish of bone-in chicken coated in chile sauce, rice bowls and a noodle soup of the day. I hope he keeps it simple. So few places do.
A day after eating at Pijiu Belly I discovered a bright yellow squiggle on the leg of my jeans that looked like an oversized question mark. It looked like a crafter with a glue gun had tried to decorate me. It turned out to be the yolk from the egg on my daughter’s burger. The waitress wasn’t kidding!
It made me want a Pijiu Burger of my own.