Critic Robert Sietsema tells why you should bring a rotisserie chicken home for dinner tonight.
Increasingly, these days, a whole rotisserie chicken is becoming a sort of culinary currency. The size of these chickens has been standardized at around two pounds, perhaps by a secret organization called the Chicken Cartel. Pick up a couple of sides and one bird cheaply feeds two, sometimes with enough flesh left over for a sandwich the next day. Remember that an uncut rotisserie chicken constitutes a virtual heat battery, miraculously staying warm for hours, even as the skin remains relatively crisp and the flesh becomes even tenderer.
The rotisserie was invented in medieval times: a rod that pierces the bird horizontally, allowing it to turn over the fire. This permits even cooking, and the chicken also self-bastes in its own juices, a boon in the days when birds were more buff and less greasy than they are now. A hapless lad known as the spit boy had to turn the rod slowly and continuously over the fire, often for hours. The rotisserie — a French word dating to the 15th century, also referring to shops that spit-cooked their meats — was mechanized in the 19th century, permanently putting spit boys out of business. Today they are stock brokers.
With summer here, nothing says picnic like a rotisserie chicken and a bottle of wine or mineral water. It’s one of the city’s most versatile and economical al fresco meals, and the subtle differences between, say, a Peruvian chicken, a supermarket chicken, and a kosher chicken can keep you in a quandary as to which one to pick (and pick at). Here are 10 of the city’s best rotisserie chickens, organized by price. An asterisk indicates the best of the best.
Citarella — Sometimes you just want a cheap and unfussy chicken, and Citarella’s deli division back in the corner next to the cheese counter provides it. The carcass is rubbed with salt and not much more, delivering pure poultry flavor. The price is almost unbelievably low, $5.53 for the chicken shown, which weighed in at slightly less than two pounds. Arrive early for the best selection, and steer clear of the ones that look a little…overdone. Strictly carryout, so take it home or for a picnic in nearby Washington Square Park. 424 6th Ave, (212) 874-0383 [Update: one commentator noted that Citarella chickens are also rubbed with garlic and rosemary.]
*La Isla Cuchifritos – Rotisserie chickens from a cuchifrito joint? But of course, mon chéri! These expertly roasted chickens fly from the kitchen at regular intervals in batches of 12, are placed in the window to be scooped up by patrons that, having spotted them, are drawn inside as if by magnetism. How about some blood sausages or crisp fried pork belly to go with your poultry? The cost of these excellent chickens is a breathtaking $7. I ate it with a friend in Maria Hernandez Park a few blocks distant, and had some left over to make enchiladas the next day. 1439 Myrtle Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 417-0668
*El Nuevo Bohio — This classic Puerto Rican lechonera specializes in crisp skinned, perfectly roasted pork, displayed prominently in the front window and served with a sprightly garlic sauce. But whole roasted chickens are a co-specialty. The birds are a bit bigger than usual, and rubbed lightly with sofrito, a paste pungent with garlic and cilantro. Seeing no virtue in char, El Nuevo Bohio disdains to overcook these chickens the way many rotisseries do, and thus they remain supremely moist. Whole chickens are $8.50, with massive servings of rice (yellow or white) and beans (black or red) an additional $2 each. 791 E Tremont Ave, Bronx, (718) 294-3905
Pollos a la Brasa Mario – A landmark in Jackson Heights that looks like a brightly painted hacienda inside and out, Pollos a la Brasa Mario mounts its rotisserie right in the front window, and a whole bird ($9.50) is the carryout darling of the neighborhood. It’s damp and bright red with paprika and even the breast is moist. Eat in and for a similar price have an ample quarter bird with rice and french fries, salad, and an appetizer of giblet soup (meal shown). There are several other branches in Queens. 81-01 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, (718) 639-5555
Casa Adela – This Puerto Rican Lower East Side stalwart has been flip-roasting chickens since 1976, and the whole birds on display show the restaurant’s proficiency. Heavily rubbed with achiote and oregano, which suffuse the flesh with flavor and bright color, this poultry ($9.50 for a whole chicken) is more notable for its pungent taste than for crisp skin. Rice and beans is the default accompaniment, but you may also enjoy American-style mayo potato salad and pulpo, a crunchy and squishy octopus salad. 66 Avenue C, (212) 473-1882
Riko — Really, there are two great reasons to pick Peruvian poultry. One is the spice rub on the skin: thick and brown, it’s probably inspired by the cooking methods that came to the country with the Chinese indentured workers almost a century ago, compounded of soy sauce and sweet spices. The second motive is the dipping sauce, a green goo that’s creamy, dreamy, and slightly spicy. Do you really want to know what’s in it? Mainly mayo, green onions, parsley, and mild chiles. One full bird at Riko is $11.50, and fried yuca is its proper accompaniment. 409 8th Ave, (212) 643-7555
*Eataly – If you crave chicken with a pedigree, Eataly is your place. According to a sign overhead, their birds are pasture-raised on Zimmerman Farms, Lancaster, PA, and come to you antibiotic and hormone free. This is a brined bird, so the flesh is plump and moist, the skin rubbed with salt, pepper, sugar, and olive oil, achieving a nice medium brown. A little larger than most rotisserie chickens, the birds here are $5.80 per pound, and our specimen cost $14.94 — enough for three people. 200 5th Ave, (212) 229-2560
*Dirty Bird To Go — DBTG offers a superior quality "all natural" bird with a spice rub that’s briny and slightly herbal. The birds are evenly browned, approximately 2 pounds or maybe a smidgen more, and cost $15.45. Exercise your option to pick your bird, and get it cut up or not, depending on whether you’ll be eating it right away. A few seats are provided for convenience of immediate consumption in a small dining room with lively decoration, and you’ll find at least one or two empty seats most times of the day. This is a place with a vibe. 204 W 14th St, (212) 620-4836
Fine & Schapiro — What about kosher chickens? Are they superior to regular chickens? Well, not really, unless you require the religious certification, which involves humane slaughter with a knife at least six inches long, careful inspection of the lungs, draining of all blood, and three saltings and rinsings. The full bird at this 1927 Upper West Side kosher deli is bigger and fatter than most, very plain tasting but not dry. Lots of flesh on the bird, with a skin only mildly salty and sometimes crisp. The thigh was especially good on this bird, which costs $17.99 for the whole shebang. 138 W 72nd St, (212) 877-2874
Streetbird — If your taste runs to a very bulbous and slightly larger bird with a brined breast, Streetbird’s your place. It’s also a rollicking restaurant with a zany décor if you choose to eat in. Via chef Marcus Samuelsson, the bird has been rubbed with brown sugar, which yields a very dark and slightly sweet skin. The dipping sauce provided is a bit too much like bottled barbecue sauce, but there’s an alternative meant to go with the very good cornbread, a dry African chutney that tastes slightly of fish. A whole chicken will set you back $18. 2149 Frederick Douglass Blvd, (212) 206-2557