Three Roosters in Hell’s Kitchen is a Thai restaurant dedicated — or perhaps obsessed — with three distinct poultry preparations: fatty lemongrass grilled chicken, lean Hainanese chicken rice, and an airy breed of fried chicken showered in a puckery, lime-y powder. There are no other mains aside from that trio of birds. Want a salad? It automatically comes with chicken; there isn’t even a vegetarian option to omit the animal protein on the delivery page. And in case that’s not enough fowl, all three entrees come with a side of clear chicken broth so powerful it smells as if it were finished with a spoonful of schmaltz. There are just two starters, one of which is satay, or skewered chicken. The other appetizer, if it can be called that, is a pile of fries.
To be absolutely clear: If you come here — and you should if you care about Thai food in New York — you are going to eat chicken, and you are going to eat extremely well.
Owners Pibool “David” Koonvirarak, Teeradej Naruenartwanich, and Apisit Sutthisopaarporn — three people who helped spread Thai rolled ice cream across the States — opened Three Roosters on the West Side late last year, not too long before the winter surge took hold. Fans of good Southeast Asian fare should already be familiar with this Thai-heavy stretch of the city; next door is the heralded Wondee Siam, with its kor moo yang (pork neck) and khua kling dry curries, while just a block south is the packed Pure Thai Cookhouse, with its excellent Ratchaburi-style noodles. Three Roosters, while indisputably more casual than its peers, is remarkably precise in much of its cooking.
The venue is still waiting for its liquor license, so for now your stimulants of choice are Thai iced tea (with condensed milk) and coffee; both will power you through a late night work session better than any Red Bull. So order a cold beverage (or BYO), take a seat at a streetside table — or in the tiny dining room — and choose your chicken.
The fried variety easily qualifies as one of the city’s top new crispy birds. Cooks apply a particularly light hand to the boneless thigh and breast meat; the craggy exterior seems to puff above the flesh into a golden chicharron. The batter isn’t quite as diaphanous as at, say, a Korean fried chicken chain like Bonchon, but it’s more nimble than a heftier Southern fry. Some bites exhibit a flavor of deeply caramelized breading, while others bites taste more of hot poultry fat. The meat underneath is a thing of beauty in its own right: fatty and chewy, almost like pork belly. Just when the richness levels rise too high, however, a very particular seasoning checks in and zaps the tongue with a jolt of sourness and a whisper of sweetness. It’s almost as if someone poured a few Pixy Stix over the poultry.
That seasoning is zab, typically a blend of lemongrass, salt, chile powder, coconut sugar, and makrut, though Koonvirarak wouldn’t disclose any of the component ingredients during a phone interview. In Thailand, one might encounter zab on Lay’s potato chips, on chicken wings, or even as a KFC flavor. In New York, zab-laced wings are not uncommon; Fish Cheeks sells its own blend in take-home shakers via Etsy. What sets Three Rooster apart in this regard is the extent to which the owners center zab on the menu, sprinkling it on the fried chicken, fried chicken tacos (a special), and the fries.
The fries are about what one might expect from a batch of expertly fried tubers: a fat, pillowy-interior protected by a golden, crisp facade. Then, all of a sudden, an electric surprise comes when the zab strikes. The sharp hit of the powdered lime, simultaneously fragrant and sour, is akin to the sensation of eating a bag of Takis — until the hint of sugar kicks in to balance things out.
For the lemongrass chicken preparation, Koonvirarak tells me he traveled to Thailand to consult with someone known as Aunt Noi, who served the delicacy across from his high school for decades. The result is salty thigh meat whose juicy flesh packs restrained notes of caramel, brown butter, and pungent fish sauce. A layer of skin on top is at once crisp and bouncy. A mound of ginger rice underneath soaks up any errant drippings. Take a sip of the clear chicken soup — and a bite of sticky rice — to reset your palate, then keep eating. It is a spectacular chicken.
Hainanese chicken over rice — a classic Chinese dish that’s common in Thailand, Singapore, and elsewhere throughout Southeast Asia — is typically famous for its neutrally juicy flesh and supple skin. Sadly, the Three Roosters version, also known as khao man gai, was dry and stringy on a recent visit. The rice underneath, however, flaunted wonderfully supple grains and exudes a proper ginger aroma. Dip the rice in a salty soybean ginger sauce, add some chiles, and you still have yourself a pretty decent meal.
So you know where this is going. I’m rating the grilled and fried chickens at Three Roosters as a BUY, along with the fries, while issuing a HOLD rating on the Hainanese version for now. Each main course is $12.95. Fries are $2.95.