1409 W. Lake St.
979 Randolph Ave.
1414 Nicollet Ave. S.
15320 Wayzata Blvd.
It's a Wednesday, 5:30 in the evening, the desperate hour. You're hungry. Terribly hungry. You have nothing in the refrigerator for dinner. If your great-grandparents had been a little more thoughtful, you might be heading home to a butler who would have this all in hand. But no, all your ancestors ever did was eke out a meager living from the sea. In your time of need, where is your wind-hardened salt cod? It is nowhere.
What to do? You could petition the legislature. You could arrange your car across four lanes of traffic, climb on the hood and weep and rend your garments until somebody finally does something. Or you could get some takeout chicken. Now me, I have been completely obsessed with figuring out who has the best takeout chicken in the Twin Cities. I don't know why. I suspect there's something wrong with me. Quite literally there has been a takeout chicken in my refrigerator every day for the last eight weeks. I have been to nearly every exit on 394 in my quest; I have driven so slowly down Central Avenue that angry teenagers have questioned my age, my sanity, and my ability to understand both simple English and universal hand gestures. Like any quest, my search has led to unforeseen personal revelations.
For one thing, I am ready to chain myself to a rooftop so that I may trumpet this dire news: Chicken can, in fact, be over-brined. Before this, I always thought that brine and chicken were a universally good pairing. Not so. I have experienced no fewer than three chickens that gave the outward appearance of glory, that were cooked on a rotisserie over a wood fire until glistening, but to eat even a few bites was to experience such mouth-puckering saltiness that one finds oneself running for a glass of water every five minutes, and, consequently, later, getting no sleep.
For another thing, a real wood or hardwood charcoal fire is the exact thing that separates good chicken from great chicken. Finally, there are excellent, amazing, wonderful takeout chickens in the Twin Cities, if you only persevere. Here are my top picks:
Hiding in the heart of Uptown, Rotisseria has some of the best chicken in the state, in any guise. To make them, Saleh Hamshari marinates chickens and roasts them on a rotisserie that circulates above a hardwood charcoal grill. When you order your chicken, it gets taken off the rotisserie, chopped up, and pressed under an iron plate on top of that hardwood charcoal fire. This results in a chicken that is both incredibly moist on the inside and gilded with smoky black char on all the outside, the skin crisped to a bacon-like state of magic. Seriously. It's that rare sort of chicken skin that gets you examining the undersides of chicken pieces with the fear that somewhere a pea-sized fleck of skin might escape uneaten.
Rotisseria serves this bird with a tart, pale-green hot sauce that perfectly picks out the sweetness and char of the chicken. With this hot sauce the chicken gets a distinctly south-of-the-border accent, but if you get it home and find you have a little gremolata, aioli, piquillo pepper sauce, or what have you, you'll find your chicken suddenly made Italian, French, Spanish, or what have you. If you ever burn the main event of your dinner party, Rotisseria's chicken will fill any hole.
To anyone living within Rotisseria's delivery range (about 15 blocks), get ready to not believe your luck: For $14.99 Rotisseria will deliver to your door a whole chicken and two large side dishes. Order two sides of the red-skinned potatoes in a little garlic-dill butter and you'll have the basis for dinner for four. Otherwise, your choices include rice, refried beans, yucca, fries, onion rings, a small simple iceberg lettuce salad, or pita bread. (A chicken on its own is $12.99.)
The restaurant is based on the Peruvian model: In Peru, rotisserie chicken restaurants inspire the same kind of mad competition and fierce devotion that you see in pizzerias in New York or fish-and-chip shops in the U.K., but aside from the general devourability of the bird, there's nothing all that Peruvian about it. In fact, even though Rotisseria opened two years ago, I rejected the idea of writing about it as a Peruvian restaurant a number of times, because, as a restaurant, it inspires a certain "is that all there is?" shrug.
I really only began to appreciate the place after I got to thinking about my last trip to Paris and how excellent the chickens are there that come out of the giant rotisseries and land in a foil-lined bag with potatoes, and why didn't we have that here? At that moment, I stopped thinking of Rotisseria as an unattractive pizza place with an unshakeable after-bar feeling, and started seeing it as what it is: amazing chicken to have in your own home.
Please note that if you're getting the chicken to go, it takes them about 10 minutes to finish that sucker on the grill, which gives you exactly enough time to dash across the street to Hennepin-Lake Liquor and pick up a good bottle of wine to go with your dinner. For a white, I'd recommend the lemony and acidic Norton Torrontes; for a red, how about a Chilean Cabernet? Of course, these chickens go extremely well with beer, too, and those heretofore annoying 15-minute parking meters out on Lake Street now prove to be made just for you.
Rooster's is a tiny, understated little takeout joint just east of Interstate 35E in a thoroughly residential neighborhood, and, like everything in St. Paul, is better than an outsider would believe, is ideally suited to raising a family, and is known almost exclusively to other people in St. Paul.
I tell you, the longer I live in Minnesota the more strange, more surprising, and more lovable I find St. Paul to be. In this instance, the strange, surprising, and lovable thing happens to be a takeout smoked chicken with the sauce on the side. It's strange because they're practically giving it away: For $9.81 (that's $10.50 with tax, don't you know) you get a huge aluminum pan filled with eight pieces of chicken and a big tub of smoky sauce. It's surprising because this chicken isn't at all tame; it's got a real wallop of herbal hickory smoke as well as that roasty, sweet taste you only get from cooking a chicken slowly, on the bone, over a wood fire. And it's lovable because you can't drive home with the thing without snaking your fingers in under the foil to pluck out a bit of chicken with that particular swampy tang of hickory smoke.
Rooster's has other charms too: It's the kind of neighborhood grab-and-go which is so small and not busy that you can call them up, have them stick your chicken on the grill, head out the door, and by the time you get there, you can walk in, pay, and walk out in seconds. It's insanely convenient.
Finally, I want all of you cooks in Highland Park and Crocus Hill to remember Rooster's the next time you think about making one of your chicken salads, weeknight quesadillas, chowders, tortilla soups, and the like. Having Rooster's chicken ready to go in your refrigerator imparts a certain level of domestic bliss to the day-to-day of kitchen life.
I was driving back into the city with two of those horrible, salt-soaked suburban chickens that I mentioned before, when suddenly, like a siren's voice in my ear, I heard it: Market BBQ. Market BBQ. Market BBQ! I drove straight to the Nicollet Avenue location, and within 10 minutes I had myself half a barbecued chicken which was like, well, I don't even want to say it was like comparing a diamond with two cubic zirconias, or like putting a real gold coin up against two foil-wrapped chocolate coins, because that doesn't do the Market chicken justice. It was like comparing a diamond to pocket lint, or a real gold coin to a frozen TV dinner.
This chicken was ivory and buoyant, so tender you could have destroyed it with a silver spoon, and so profoundly infused with smoke and fire that it became utterly delicate and ethereal. It was the absolute definition of what a takeout chicken should be: far better than you could ever do in your own kitchen, and making you see with new eyes the very possibility of chicken.
How is it that I've been to Market BBQ a dozen times and never noticed the purity and excellence of this bird? I called up the owner, Steve Polski, to find out what was wrong with me. "I've been here for 43 years, I've seen customers that whole time who never look at the menu," Polski told me. "We're kind of like an ice cream parlor in some ways, they come in thinking of ice cream, they order ice cream. Except with us it's ribs."
The reason that chicken is so good is threefold: One, it's cooked over Market's brick pit, which is stocked with slow-burning hardwood, usually oak, but also sometimes apple, hickory, maple, or even cherry. Two, there's the secret-recipe herb mixture the chickens are basted in. Third, there are the chickens themselves: giant four-and-a-quarter or four-and-a-half pound birds. Extra-big birds mean they don't dry out.
This explained another mystery. I couldn't figure out why a half-chicken at Market BBQ, which seemed steeply priced at $11.95, was so much more chicken--easily dinner for two adults--when I was paying the same thing for whole chickens at lesser joints and getting less food. Now I know. The last thing I want to tell all you downtown workers is this: Never forget that Market BBQ has a free parking lot.
More importantly, never forget that your sweetheart, when bound up with deadlines, sick kids, or general stress, your sweetheart will look at you, if you come in the door at night with a Market BBQ chicken in a box swinging from one arm, your sweetheart will look at you as more than a sweetheart, but, fully, as savior, as friend, and as hero.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.