David Chang wants to win at fast food. It already beat him once. In 2006, his Ssam Bar failed to lure in Chipotle-level crowds despite its Chipotle-chic assembly line for burritos. The consolation prize? He turned that institution into one of the city's busiest purveyors of boundary-pushing share plates. But now, nearly a decade later, he's back at it on the ultra-casual front, hawking fiery chicken fingers, porky flatbread pizzas, questionable hamburgers, and crispy Old Bay fries at a little experiment called Fuku+. Many will eat while standing up, because the poultry-heavy venue is packed (right on) and because the bar has no stools (bogus). Looks like Chang was nine years too early with those burritos.
Fuku+ in Midtown, which occupies the old first floor lounge at Ma Peche in the Chambers Hotel, is the second Fuku to debut in 2015. The fine sophomore effort boasts a larger space and a longer menu than the East Village original; the latter sells just three savory items: the chicken sandwich, a salad, and fries. Bartenders describe Fuku+ as a test-kitchen of sorts, and Momofuku says items that perform well might trickle down to the First Avenue location (and perhaps, in a decade's time, to the thousands of other Fukus worldwide).
Fuku is clearly gearing up for battle with Chik-Fil-A.
Fuku is clearly gearing up for battle with Chik-Fil-A, the cultish fried chicken sandwich chain that's opening its first full-fledged NYC outpost later this week; there's long been a limited-menu location in an NYU dorm, where the nuggets are soggy and the sandwiches are sodium bombs.
Chang isn't the only high-end chef to try his hand out in the fine-casual space – the Danny Meyer term for elevated fast food. Del Posto's Mark Ladner has his gluten-free Pasta Flyer and Brooks Headley has his vegetarian Superiority Burger. Part of the lure is surely the desire to become the next billion dollar empire, the next Shake Shack. And that's not a bad thing. Why not displace commodity chains in suburban America with more creative and noble-minded institutions? Why not convince entry-level eaters to pay a little bit more for their food, with prices that are higher than Wendy's yet cheaper than Applebee's, with meats sourced from humanely raised animals, and with happier employees who (let's hope) work better better schedules for better pay?
And as New York state raises its minimum wages across the board in January, it's likely we'll see more of these fine casual institutions, which let chefs do cool stuff with fewer staffers, helping to keep labor costs in check (though Fuku+ is closer to a proper restaurant than the more stripped-down East Village location).
Here's what to get (and what to avoid) on the current menu at Fuku+.
Mission Chinese Fuku Fingers (limited time, $16): The greatest chicken fingers in the known universe – not bad for a kid's menu staple that's more often associated with mediocrity than superlatives. Tenders are essentially the filet mignon of the chicken; their delicate flavor calls for a strong sauce. In this case, we have MCF's Chongqing spice blend, a mouth numbing dose of Sichuan peppercorns, stinging chiles, and most importantly, sugar, an addition that subconsciously causes you to keep eating despite the pain. Be strong.
Fuku Bites ($6): Chicken nuggets whose irregular shapes and craggy exteriors make them look like McDonald's rejects. But unlike the spongy, machine-separated poultry at certain national chains, these excellent bites sport a proper, peppery chew, with as much skin as flesh in a single bite. Skip the verdant sweet-sour sauce that comes with in favor of the deeper, richer, gochujang-laced Ssam sauce.
Sichuan Flatbread ($15): The pizza analogue to Ssam Bar's famous spicy rice cakes, a logical riff if you consider that a margherita pie is essentially more portable version of spaghetti con pomodoro. A layer of pork ragu, richly perfumed with bitter Sichuan peppercorns, sits atop a layer of aerated tofu (your mozzarella stand-in), and flatbread. The world needs more of this dish.
Imagine how many more Americans would learn to appreciate the true, deep flavor of shrimp if a chain decided to sell the creatures like this?
Salt & Pepper Shrimp ($12): The aggressively-seasoned Cantonese classic, with the aromatic heads attached. And that's key: Imagine how many more Americans would learn to appreciate the true, deep flavor of shrimp if a chain decided to sell the creatures like this?
Pickled Mussels ($12): Heady mollusks, jarred with mussel juice, shishito peppers, apple cider vinegar, and crimson paprika oil. Looks like a prehistoric terrarium preserved in amber. Order it.
Wedge Salad ($12): Your cooling, not quite vegetarian antidote to the MCF fingers. It's not served in a wedge, which is confusing, but otherwise it's a righteous iceberg salad, sitting in a judicious application of Benton's buttermilk dressing. The smoke levels correctly play second fiddle to the cream of the dairy and the crunch of breakfast radishes.
Wedge Fries ($3): Seasoned with Old Bay, these potato wedges are sometimes known as steak fries, which I called an "inferior form of fry" in my first look at Fuku this summer. Accordingly, Momofuku offered the following note during my fact checking process: "Are we going to stick with the wedge fry? Yes, as long as we can – they are Dave’s favorite fries. Are there a lot of complaints about the fries? Absolutely, but we are trying to come up with a fry that is different from what everyone else is doing. We are introducing a jalapeno seasoned fry soon. Because everyone hates them, we are trying to come up with something that makes it great. Isn’t that worth exploring?" It is. But these tubers still aren't ready for prime time. The exterior is crispy and salty, while the insides are simultaneously soft yet gritty, like undercooked mashed potatoes.
Juicy Lucy ($9): Two Niman Ranch beef patties fused together with a oozy, gooey, American cheese center. It squirts hot cheese when you bite into it. Lovely. It's topped with fragrant sautéed onions. Even better. Then you chew. And you realize this is not a good burger. Servers mention it'll be served medium-well. And that's fine; a cooked-through patty can be delicious if it boasts the right beef blend, with a loose texture that causes it to crumble in the mouth like a meaty brownie. But the Fuku+ burger, sampled twice, was a dry, rubbery, one-note hockey puck, with a grey interior that evoked a heat lamp more than a griddle.
MiniMe ($6): Why does Fuku+ sell a smaller, cheaper version of the original Fuku's spicy chicken sandwich? Simple: Because Momofuku receives chickens of various sizes from a co-op of Mid-Atlantic farms. As a rep puts its: "The chickens are different sizes because all chicken is not uniform. Although we are working to a more uniform standard, we don’t want the chickens to ever all be exactly the same."
The MiniMe thigh meat sandwich, like the larger one downtown, is thinner than the hefty breast meat affair at Chick-Fil-A. It's the poultry equivalent of a smashed griddle-top burger (versus a thicker restaurant-style patty). This flatter approach results in a high ratio of crust to meat, meaning you get more crunch and crackle. The exterior's deep, dark colors evoke the mahogany hue of a skillet-fried bird. The salt levels are more restrained than at Chick-Fil-A, and the heat, a product of a habanero buttermilk brine, is intense but never painful. If you're lucky, you'll get a thick, gelatinous strip of fat on one side of the patty. Ask for daikon slaw to up the tartness factor, but really, the pickles provide sufficient acidity. As for the meat itself? It's neutral. And that's fine. You're not here to appreciate the subtleties of Poulet en Bresse; you're hear to enjoy a neutral conduit for salt and spice. You're here for a gently chewy piece of poultry that makes your jaw work just enough to let you know this came from a real animal that had an opportunity to get in a workout or two during its short life. This is a stellar sandwich.
On Getting In: Until this week, a Fuku+ host might've told you that many of the tables were reserved for those who purchased $25 meal packages in advance, which meant you and other walk-ins were relegated to the stand-up bar. That policy is being phased out, and Fuku+ will soon stop taking bookings. This is a positive development, because if you don't need a reservation to sit down and eat a chicken sandwich at Chik-Fil-A, you shouldn't need one at Fuku+ either.