The very first item on the Pecking House website’s FAQ addresses how spicy the fried chicken is. It’s a fair question, as the bird’s color and cragginess give it the look of something geologic, like cooling magma. Do not touch, warns the ochre hue. “We would describe it as medium spicy despite its intense appearance,” reads the wholly incorrect statement on the website.
To call Pecking House’s chicken mid-level spicy is like calling Blair Witch a medium scary movie or a blue dart frog a halfway poisonous amphibian. Here, in a roomy Park Slope space, chef Eric Huang camouflages his birds in a shiny sauce laced with sugar, Sichuan peppercorns, monosodium glutamate, and Tianjin chiles — a North Asian nightshade that looks like a cartoon firecracker. The chiles aren’t as potent as habaneros but can exceed the spiciness of jalapenos on the Scoville scale by a factor of thirty. Each bronzed thigh smells of bitterness and pain.
Let’s set the record straight: This electric mashup of Southern and Sichuan sensibilities is objectively, scientifically hot. It is also stupendously delicious, with a sweet-salty-spicy balance that keeps things pleasurable, albeit at an intense level.
More than a few folks are aware of Pecking’s poultry mastery. Huang — who worked at fine dining spots like Cafe Boulud, as well as his family’s Chinese restaurant on Long Island — attracted a 10,000-person waitlist when he started the business as a pandemic pop-up. The delivery-centric model necessitated a sturdy crust, a problem he solved by adding EverCrisp wheat dextrin into the batter. It worked, but the tougher reality was folks waiting eight weeks for fried chicken.
At the month-old shop, which Huang runs with fellow Gramercy Tavern vet Maya Ferrante, folks can simply drop by and not have to wait long for food. The team has also expanded the lean pop-up menu with oyster mushroom po’boys (crispy and neutral) and vegan mapo tofu sandwiches (packed with stretchy, spiced yuba), and a pineapple slicked chicken sandwich (skip it).
Diners in sweatshirts and baseball caps — not quite Polo Club chic — munch on dirty fried rice, firm grains slicked with a gloss of chicken liver. And the sound system might pump out the Mamma Mia version of “S.O.S.,” with Pierce and Meryl belting out the Abba tune as best as they can.
Pecking House is the opposite of a vibe-y 2022 restaurant, a place where people drink Long Island Ice teas priced like porterhouses and take selfies in bathrooms equipped with fog machines. The lighting here is as sexy as in a Metro-North rail car. You don’t go here for a birthday dinner; you go here for a 25-minute meal before you celebrate somewhere else. Pecking House is a practical, no reservations, pay-first-eat-later neighborhood restaurant where a full dinner — two pieces of chicken, a side, and a beer — runs $34 after tax and tip.
Order at the cashier, grab a (backless) bar stool and wait for a server to bring out Huang and Ferrante’s “naked” fried chicken, dusted with salt, five spice, and vinegar powder. Sounds good in theory, but the execution wasn’t there recently. The vinegar was undetectable and the poultry was dry. The salted egg yolk chicken was better, where the ultra-rich and grainy condiment, sporting just a touch of sulfurous musk, enrobes a supremely juicy bird.
But please, to honor the sacrifice of those who waited months for the chile chicken in the early days, get the chile chicken. The sting of the chiles and the buzz of Sichuan peppercorns at first recall a classic rendition of la zi ji, a Chongqing-style fry. But the way Huang paints every nook and cranny with oil is more in line with a proper Nashville bird. Each bite starts with a crunch, then quickly yields to a level of juiciness that makes you wonder if Pecking was trying to mimic a Shanghainese soup dumpling. Sugar balances out the heat at first, until the seasonings build, making your lips tingle and stomach glow for a solid half hour. Think of the spice as an edible hand warmer for your insides. And for those who do takeout, note that the crunch factor is no less powerful three full hours after ordering, as long as you have a toaster oven nearby.
As New York extends its golden age of fried chicken with estimable Thai, South Asian, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Puerto Rican entrants, Pecking’s Chinese American birds easily rank among the city’s finest.
What you’ll pay for this luxury is reasonable too. National poultry prices have shot up over 17 percent since this time last year (egg prices are up 30 percent), a fact that partly explains why chicken, once a frugal option, now runs $40 plus at full-service restaurants. The cost will surely go up here too at some point, which is not necessarily a bad thing since excellent crispy birds have long occupied a lower pricing tier than even mediocre roast counterparts.
For now, however, in this inflationary era, there’s something quite nice about two ex-fine-dining chefs keeping one of the city’s top fried chickens at $18 before tax and tip. You know where this is going; I’m rating Pecking’s chile and salted egg chickens a BUY. And on the larger subject of undervalued poultry those entranced by Huang’s spice blends should check out a local Sichuan restaurant for some really great la zi ji, a style of fried chicken that never seems to attract the same types of superlatives or accolades as more fashionable forms do.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or two and decides whether you should buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).