Rowdy Rooster might be the greatest New York fried chicken joint for vegetarians — or at least for folks who want to eat less meat. I should clarify, however, that there’s no Silicon Valley imitation chicken at this Indian newcomer. Every bird here has been slaughtered, bled, hacked up by a local butcher, marinated in yogurt, fried, and then served dripping with copper-colored chile paste to people who’ll tolerate quite a bit of pain to enjoy all the fatty bits. It all begs the question: What makes Rowdy Rooster such a vegetarian-friendly poultry joint? Something quite simple. In addition to the absolutely epic dark meat fried chicken — there’s no white meat on premises — the East Village spot serves excellent fried vegetables, many of them covered in a potent dusting of spices.
“We did some trials with fake chicken. Nothing excited us,” co-owner Roni Mazumdar told me via phone, adding that he didn’t want his vegetable dishes to be a “secondary thought” or a “replacement” for his birds. The battered veggies here, dripping with fiery sauces and flaunting sun-drenched hues, are accordingly just as worthy of anyone’s attention as the crackly poultry.
In this small room on First Avenue, cooks slice eggplant ($4) into cubes and toss them into bubbling oil. What results is an ochre shell hiding an interior so silky one could mistake the nightshade for agedashi tofu. The kitchen also fries up potatoes ($4) into extraordinarily thin pakoras, dusting the floppy, earthy rounds with mildly warming red chiles, tamarind, and salt. This is Rowdy’s soft, starchy response to a more Euro-leaning pile of frites.
Staffers also dip cauliflower ($9) in batter, let it spend some time in the fryer, then slather each floret in a bath of chile sauce. This Indian Chinese preparation — akin to gobi Manchurian — is a rigid balancing of restrained sugars, delicate tartness, brassica crunch, and spicy peppers that pack as many tannins as a young red wine. Finally, there’s the vada pav ($7), that universal Indian street snack that sandwiches a crisp potato patty between a squishy pao roll. I’ve never met a vada pav I didn’t like, but here, the kitchen fries up a version so rich and buttery you almost wonder if they were working with the type of pommes puree you typically get from an overpriced steakhouse.
Then again, a traditional pommes puree probably wouldn’t cause one’s mouth to feel as if it were undergoing acupuncture — thanks to a chile dry rub that stings and pricks and much as it warms and soothes. One would expect nothing less from Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya, the hit-making team behind South Asian blockbusters like the Southern Indian Semma, the tandoor-haven that is Adda, and the face-melting Dhamaka. A cashier justifiably asks, “Are you sure?” before you choose the hottest of three spice levels. That tier, known as “Rowdy,” makes it seem like someone is scrubbing your tongue with the world’s most delicious Brillo pad. The pain and pleasure go hand in hand.
Unapologetic Foods, as Mazumdar and Pandya call their growing empire, has another hit on its hands, though for reasons that don’t always align with the success of the duo’s other venues. The two impresarios generally like to pepper their offerings with regional fare that one might have a hard time finding elsewhere in New York or even in sit-down restaurants throughout the subcontinent. That’s as true of Dhamaka’s pork face salad as it is of Semma’s goat intestines.
The greater revelation at Rowdy Rooster, by contrast, isn’t necessarily the appearance of South Asian street-stall fried chicken, however spectacular, or the highlighting of overlooked dishes. One can find gobi Manchurian, vada pav, and pakoras throughout the city. The true boon of this tiny hangout is that it’s a fried chicken spot that devotes significant care to its meat-free offerings. Indeed, Pandya’s plant-forward preparations aren’t concessions or substitutions; they sing the same crispy, spicy, fatty tunes as the poultry. The fact that India is home to hundreds of millions of vegetarians surely informs this ethos; if only those sensibilities could apply to the larger constellation of stateside fast-food spots, venues that largely ignore the needs of folks who don’t eat meat. It’s nice not to have to resort to that proverbial Big Mac without beef.
To sample anything here, you’ll likely have to wait a bit in close quarters; there’s no online ordering just yet. A line snakes toward the exit in such a way that simply entering can require a bit of negotiating with those queuing up by the door. Seating is first-come, first-served, and offers stellar views of exposed filament bulbs, a polychromatic rooster painted in primary colors, and a long line of people who want your table.
A Big Rowdy sandwich, ordered at a medium spice level, is a good choice to experience the rush of Pandya’s chiles without all of the suffering. The kitchen takes a craggy fried thigh and coats it in a blend of chaat masala and bird’s eye chiles. Rowdy Rooster then tops it off with a serious dose of yogurt and mint chutney. The chicken audibly crunches as you chomp down, shortly before the heat imparts a mix of subtle smoke and astringency. Each bite produces a few minutes of lingual and esophageal warmth, even amid the cooling power of yogurt.
That sandwich is nicely balanced. Now consider something with a bit less balance: bone-in fried chicken ($9) at the Rowdy level, served in a small cardboard container. The modest size is key: Patrons aren’t wolfing down giant breasts or wings, but rather sampling chopped-up bits of leg meat, a portioning decision that makes the high heat more tolerable. It’s just a snack — but what a spectacular snack it is.
Cooks drench the fried nuggets in a spice blend forged from butter, Kashmiri chiles, and ghost peppers — a Northeastern Indian variety so potent they could surely power an F-22 in flight in the absence of jet fuel. The incendiary slurry stains napkins and fingers red. And then comes the pain. It arrives hard and fast, agitating the lips and tongue like a sip of boiling hot coffee that doesn’t seem to cool down until long after you’ve finished. But profound flavor accompanies the torment. The chiles express a deep bitterness, like good dark chocolate, before emitting a hint of smoke. And even amid all the intensity, the musky flavor of the fatty, tender poultry comes through. It’s hard not to draw parallels to Nashville hot chicken, which boasts a similar flavor profile and oiliness. But since hot chicken hasn’t taken off in New York the way it has in Los Angeles and elsewhere, maybe it’s a South Asian spicy bird that folks in the five boroughs will rally behind in a major way.
If the fried chicken isn’t enough, try following up with that filling vada pav. The sandwich’s grassy chutney, along with the intense butter, brings a touch of momentary herbal relief to your palate — until you encounter more chiles. Have another sip of lassi to quell your glowing tummy, and make sure your lips are clean before putting on a mask, otherwise the burn — although a good one — will last all day.