When David Chang’s Fuku opened in 2015, there was no ambiguity about who its chief rival was: Chick-fil-A. The central offering was a chicken sandwich similar in style to that of the billion-dollar behemoth, and superior in quality, too. Line cooks fried spicy slabs of thigh meat till golden, stuck them between two halves of a buttered roll, and placed neon-green pickles underneath the patty — so the acid hit the tongue right away. It was nearly perfect. It still is.
But as Fuku expanded nationally — something it continues to do — changes suggested it had a wider swath of competitors in its crosshairs. Chicken fingers and bites were added to lure in fans of McDonald’s. Crispy sandwiches with ranch and bacon were introduced in the style of Wendy’s.
And then, in early February, the Wall Street location quietly implemented Fuku’s biggest change yet, adding waffle fries, rice and beans, haute mac and cheese, and most importantly, an all-day bone-in fried chicken program. Looks like Chang & co. are preparing, at a very low level, to chip away at the market share of Popeye’s, Bonchon, and the global stalwart that is KFC.
If only its fried chicken were better.
The larger Momofuku organization certainly has the institutional DNA to make this all work. Sister spot Noodle Bar continues to serve one of the city’s most heralded fried chicken feasts, frying up two whole birds, one Korean-style, the other with Old Bay for $150. And back in the day, Chang’s now-closed Ma Peche dished up an absolutely stellar habanero fried chicken in the $20 range.
Prices at Fuku FiDi, while not quite KFC low, are markedly cheaper than Momofuku’s previous efforts. A quarter chicken runs $8, or $11 with sides.
Momofuku also has the financial backing to execute its vision nationally. There are 11 Fukus across the country at the moment, with more surely to come given that the well-funded RSE Ventures has a minority stake in Chang’s businesses. And while the Fuku team tells me stadium concessions will stay the same for now, the crew is planning on rolling out new items to other storefronts in New York and Boston.
That slow rollout is a smart idea. In an era of growing fried chicken connoisseurship, partly thanks to the influx of chains like TKK, Pelicana, and Jollibee, Fuku will need to tweak its formula to keep pace. Put more bluntly: It’s not very good fried chicken.
Sichuan-flavored thighs, fried twice, boast a handsome bronze exterior. Then you take a bite and oil dribbles down your chin, coating your hand, spilling onto your plate. The bottom of the takeout box is covered in oil too, which spills out onto everything else you ordered. One could make a full order of mapo tofu with runoff, which leaves a hint of fragrant bitterness and a mild jolt of heat. The meat itself is flat and flavorless.
Old Bay chicken, which delivers the pleasurable sensation of mainlining celery salt at Noodle Bar, is a more neutral affair at Fuku. The mid-Atlantic seasonings require more effort to discern, while the meat underneath is, like that of the Sichuan version, decidedly bland. The sweet-and-spicy garlic option, an ode to Korean-style fried chicken, comes through with more potent levels of sugar and heat. If only there was a touch of soy to put some air in these tires. This is the least worst option there.
Then there’s the O.G. version, which is akin to eating KFC’s original recipe, minus the 11 herbs and spices, minus the salt, minus the juiciness. The flesh tastes like nothing. It’s like KFC, minus the deliciousness.
Chang rose to fame, in part, on wave of high-fat, high-salt food designed to wake up a deadened (or drunk) palate late at night. That’s why it’s ironic that the key problem with the Fuku bone-in chicken is salt. Levels of salinity are admittedly subjective; I’d be out of my mind if I criticized a restaurant for something I could adjust myself with the little ramekin of fleur de sel. The missteps at Fuku, however, are deeper, indicative of batters and birds that have been improperly seasoned every step of the way.
These issues, fortunately, are largely confined to the bone-in options, as well the (sandy) chicken fingers, a poor response to the McDonald’s mainstay.
Fuku has always had an achilles heel with potatoes, a problem that I’ll argue it has solved. The chain launched with steak fries (barf) before switching to fat Roy Rogers-style fries. Either way, these were incorrect choices given the situation at hand. Anyone who wants to beat the Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A at its own game needs to go head-to-head with their chief spuds: waffle fries.
Chang, along with chef Stefanie Abrams, finally accepted this challenge. They have emerged victorious. These pommes gaufrette, to use the French term, resist mealiness with tenacity, retaining their initial crunch for well over an hour — perfect for takeaway and delayed eating. Also relevant: Waffles take well to seasoning with all their nooks and crannies, just as rigatoni or ziti help trap pasta sauce. The kitchen, accordingly, sprinkles them with a spice blend of dehydrated jalapenos, salt, and sugar, imparting the ’taters with a brilliant sweet-spicy finish.
As for mac and cheese, few other preparations exhibit as much depth as Fuku’s. Al dente elbow noodles get tossed in with Parmesan and chickpea hozon (Chang’s proprietary soy-free miso), while black pepper crunchies (made with fried chicken skin) provide a touch of fire in the back of your throat. Transcontinental Momofuku eaters will recognize this cacio e pepe analogue from appearances at Nishi in New York and Majordomo in Los Angeles.
Does it taste the same in paper cup? Of course not, but for $3.50, it comes frighteningly close to the $20 original.
Rice and beans, that eternal Popeye’s staple, delivers solid nourishment here too, with an extra dose of savory roundness from chicken fat and tasso ham. And in a pleasant change of pace to fast-food biscuits, Fuku douses King’s Hawaiian rolls with mozzarella cheese, a nice bit of mid-meal stretchiness and starchiness.
The classic sandwich, incidentally, is better than ever, packing a meaty, sometimes gelatinous chew, and finishing with a fragrant habanero heat. The Financial District location now uses King rolls for these too, versus the Martin’s Potato rolls at other outposts. The added sweetness is key; it offsets the aggressively seasoned poultry. Though if levels of sodium or fat get too out of hand for some — a real possibility at any fast-food spot — creamy rice pudding should cleanse the palate and quell the stomach.
Still, fixing that bone-in fried chicken will be key. It’s a notoriously difficult preparation, a rare modern foodstuff where gourmands often seek out the consistent chain variety over more unique, small-batch alternatives. “In every city that has a Popeyes, Popeyes serves the best fried chicken in that city,” J. Kenji López-Alt famously tweeted last year. Whether anyone will be saying that about Fuku one day will depend on much-needed improvements.