Is it my imagination, or are national fast-food chains invading New York City faster than ever? A couple of new ones have recently opened in the East Village, a neighborhood normally characterized by independent, privately owned restaurants.
What is a chicken finger, anyway?
In the case of Raising Cane’s, chicken fingers are made with tenderloins, known as “chicken tenders,” a cut that hangs below the breast with similar texture and taste. At Raising Cane’s, this pale meat comes in strips that have been brined for 24 hours before being battered and fried. The chicken is said to have never been frozen.
Now, a factory chicken probably doesn’t need that much brining to be tender, and this meat has gone all the way to soft and fluffy, which I suppose is the appeal of Raising Cane’s. The chain was founded in 1996 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and now boasts over 700 locations nationwide.
Our new branch that opened in the East Village about a week ago (20 Astor Place and Lafayette Street) — one of two, the other being the first in the city at Times Square — seats about 80 people. As I entered soon after it opened, the place was mobbed with a long line extending to the doorway and beyond. The average age of the customers seemed to be about 20. The line moves quickly because a dozen employees work behind the counter. When your order is ready, they shout, “One Love for [your name here]!” Bob Marley is gnashing his teeth in his grave.
Everything here contains chicken fingers, so even the chicken sandwich ($9) — the only alternative to the fingers — is made with the same fingers.
The platters contains three ($11.93) or four ($14.69) chicken fingers, an order that also includes crinkle-cut fries, a small tub of coleslaw, a dipping sauce, and Texas toast — a thick slice of what the menu calls garlic bread, but so bland that any pizzeria would laugh at it. With the breading, fries, and toast, a meal at Cane’s is an onslaught of carbs.
The chicken itself is so freshly fried it remains exceedingly crunchy. The Texas toast is completely forgettable, a value-added feature that doesn’t seem to belong to the same meal. The crinkle cut fries are meh! And the black-flecked pink dipping sauce, which tastes mainly like mayo, does no one any good. What we are left with is some exceedingly tender and crunchy fingers that one should probably try at least once, as an exercise in wholesome blandness.
By the way, the iced tea, available sweetened or unsweetened, is killer.
El Primo Red Tacos
Meanwhile, over at Tompkins Square, a new taqueria that opened earlier this month, El Primo Red Tacos, has debuted with the flapping of red pennants at 151 Avenue A near 10th Street. El Primo is a Florida chain that started as a pop-up in 2020, and now has branches in Miami and Hallandale, Florida. But this is a taqueria that sells only beef birria, in many variations: quesatacos, huesatacos, vampiros, tacos dorado, tacos perron, birria nachos, birria ramen, and a birria sampler ($98) that presumably contains all of the above.
Once inside, the bright red signage on the white walls is certainly well thought-out, with folded tacos dripping red sauce, the menu emblazoned on the wall, and a hanging “El Primo” sign.
And the birria? Like the chicken fingers at Raising Cane’s, it’s the one commodity that all else depends upon. It tastes like stringy pot roast, served with that consomé, and altogether too juicy.
I ordered a couple of things like the taco dorado ($4), rather than wrapped and fried, the tortilla is folded over here, then topped with onions, red salsa, and radish slices. The hard tortilla quickly turns soft — not bad, but you need at least three of these to make a meal.
The place was unable to provide a huesitaco, which should contain bone marrow, but they did have the taco perron ($6), a taco originating in Baja that has — in this manifestation at least — guacamole plus pickled purple and chopped raw onions. When the gritty hot sauce is added, this taco is nearly wonderful in its opulence.
I got a third item — the inevitable birria smashburger ($12). It’s one of the better smashburgers in the city, but with all the other greasy flavors, the birria doesn’t even register. And, as at Raising Cane’s, the fries are only so-so.
If it can stay afloat in a very crowded birria field, El Primo is the chain I would visit again, especially for the taco perron: There certainly aren’t too many other places that serve it.