More than any other culprit, Pies ‘n’ Thighs bears responsibility for modern ideas about fried chicken. For one thing, the place popularized brining — immersing chicken in an osmotic solution that adds salt to the flesh and renders it softer. But in addition, PNT’s fresh enthusiasm for a commodity that had lately been descending into boneless, skinless hell proved infectious, so that fried chicken caught fire again. And now you can get hipster versions of fried chicken in dozens of places around town, especially in Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, and the East Village.
Pies ‘n’ Thighs was founded in 2006 by Sarah Buck and Steven Tanner — she was from California, he was from Georgia, and their chicken felt like it came from both places simultaneously. The original joint was in the back of the Rockstar Bar, a down-and-dirty biker hang across the street from the Domino Sugar Factory. The bar was a dump; the improvised kitchen was a dump, too — pots and pans, lids askew, dirty dishes, and half-eaten pies teetered on every surface. I loved it. I would order my food inside, and, weather permitting, sit in the fenced back yard, where a fragrant pork shoulder always seemed to be barbecuing as the Williamsburg Bridge towered overhead.
But in 2008, just two years after it opened, the place closed. As with the old Mission Chinese, one suspects that the premises was inherently so old and filthy that it could never be fully brought up to code. The neighborhood was forlorn. Luckily, two years later Pies ‘n’ Thighs moved into a new cobbled-together series of spaces just up the hill a few blocks east. It rapidly became one of the borough’s most popular restaurants, still retaining some of the rustic, rural, and slightly hardscrabble feel of the original. Meanwhile Tanner had departed to other projects, including The Commodore, taking his chicken biscuit with him. Co-owners are currently Sarah Sanneh (nee Buck), Carolyn Bane, and Erika Williams.
Now Pies ‘n’ Thighs has cloned itself in a new space on the Lower East Side, just west of the corner of Essex and Canal. The place has a sense of newness that the old evocations lacked; everything is spic-and-span and modern, though the layout perfectly mimics a traditional lunch counter in the American South. Pies and bulbous chocolate donuts beckon from the front window. On your right as you enter there’s a counter with stools (supposedly extracted from the Rockstar Bar), with a line of skinny tables on your left. At the rear is an additional small dining room visible through a window cut in the wall. Refreshingly, there’s no art on the walls to speak of. It feels like a real place and not a parody of something else.
The menu, in slightly reduced form, reproduces that of the Williamsburg mothership. There is no pulled pork sandwich at present, and you’ll find the number of iterations of certain dishes curtailed. For example, you can get a catfish box on the Lower East Side, but not a fish sandwich or fried eggs with fish and grits. Actually, that’s not completely true — when a companion and I requested a not-on-the-menu catfish sandwich ($10), one was readily concocted. Piled with coleslaw, tartar sauce, dill pickles, and lettuce, and mounted on a hamburger bun with a squirt of vinegary hot sauce, it was the most delicious thing we tasted on two visits.
That hamburger bun figures in the "insane burger," another memorable transplant from the original menu. A thick meat patty is heaped with bacon, a fried egg, and a choice of cheese; a stack of greenery and pickles lurks on the side. The new menu seems to emphasize a series of crazy breakfasts based on PNT’s imperially inflated biscuits, and you’ll find yourself in really funky territory if you order the Rob Evans ($10), a split biscuit overflowing with cheese and sausage gravy, with an egg in there somewhere, too. But whether the thing is named after a young male model or an aging football coach I was unable to determine.
At this point, the pies emphasized in the restaurant’s name seem almost an afterthought. Four are available per day, of which we thoroughly enjoyed a slice of bourbon pecan ($5.50). There are a couple of new things unique to the Lower East Side menu, including an egg salad sandwich and a specials section that recently included crab on toast and chicken dumpling soup. (We asked for the soup, but they didn’t have any.)
The chicken is as good as ever, perhaps better. As we sat at the counter on a recent afternoon, everyone around us seemed to be eating the chicken and waffles ($13), a combination first invented at Harlem’s Wells Supper Club in 1938. PNT has substituted a healthful-seeming buckwheat waffle, put cinnamon in the scoop of butter on top, and poured on cranberries stewed in maple syrup, in addition to two pieces of the famous fried chicken. The combination will still leave you asking, "Am I eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner?"
Pies ‘n’ Thighs is open from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. until midnight. 43 Canal Street, (212) 437-PIES.
Correction: A previous version of the article stated that the original Pies 'n' Thighs was shut down by the DOH. The Health Department did not force the restaurant to close.