Our latest Quick Bites brings us to Fuku on 1st Avenue, David Chang's new joint.
What does it mean that the hottest restaurant in New York City right his minute offers only three items on the menu, has nowhere to sit, and closes at 4 in the afternoon? Other than we're all crazy and/or idiots?
Well, I don't really know the big-picture answer to that question, but in the specific case of the brand-new Fuku in the East Village, the reason of course is David Chang. Ever since Chang changed the game back in 2004 with the opening of his original Momofuku ramen bar—or, at least, ever since people really caught on to what he was doing there, which took about a year—no move by the man has gone under-hyped.
And at Fuku, which will serve as a template and laboratory for what he hopes will be a world-crushing chain of chicken sandwich restaurants, the combination of comfort food plus Chang has proven to be irresistible for a certain sort of eating enthusiast.
In true OG Changian style the focus at Fuku is on the food, not customer comfort and amenities. There's no cash accepted, no chairs or stools of any kind, no cute "help yourself" jug of water on the counter with floating slices of lemon, no bathroom.
On the plus side, atmosphere-wise, the music is good (mostly '80s rap and '90s indie); there's a full booze license, though most people I saw were sticking to canned-Tecate Micheladas; and the turnover at the various counter areas is rapid, so there always seems to be plenty of room to eat.
Most crucially, the Fuku team is highly organized, friendly, and efficient, from the kitchen crew to the young woman taking orders to the line wranglers outside. So what could be have easily been a frustrating shitshow instead feels like a festive event.
On each of my three visits last week, the time it took from arrival on line outside to finishing my food was about 45 minutes.
The success of any chain is contingent upon 1. the food being good (not really, but we can hope, right?) and 2. consistency across time and space. Because there's only a single Fuku (for now!), I ate here on each of restaurant's first three days, to see how the kitchen held up. These are my initial reactions each time.
Spicy Chicken Sandwich Day 1: Oh man thigh meat was so the way to go here! Nice funky flavor and super juicy, even after it's been bubbling in the fryer long enough to put some real crunch into the coating. The steamed bun, too, ups the moisture content without feeling soggy or limp. Pickles give a nice little hit of acid, and though it at first looks like it could use some cheese or bacon or sauce or something, it doesn't actually need it. Delicious as promised by the heat-saver wrapper, though not nearly as spicy as I expected/was hoping. Is Chang pulling his punches?
Spicy Chicken Sandwich Day 2: Whoa, ok, NOW I feel the fire. When I asked Chef Tony Kim if they changed anything from Day 1, he assured me that the recipe and procedure is always the same, but because they do everything by hand, there possibly is some spiciness variation from sandwich to sandwich. Also possible: I was just so caught up in the glamour of opening day—or distracted by the tedious fries (more on those in a minute)—that I wasn't paying full attention. Anyway, the heat has that sweet, sexy undertone you get from habanero or scotch bonnet, rather than the straight-up burn from red chili flakes, which also means it doesn't linger.
The ratio of bird to bun remains huge in favor of the chicken, and it's all still juicy and delicious. If anything, I enjoyed this second sandwich even more than my first. Sidenote: Chang removed the stools that had been there on Day 1; Fuku is now officially a standing-only spot.
Spicy Chicken Sandwich Day 3: This is the crunchiest bird by far of my three sandwiches, deep-fried to a much darker color as well. And yet, it's still tender and juicy! Makes you wonder why everyone doesn't just stick to frying thighs. Also, it seems as if we're back to a more medium degree of hotness, as on Day 1. Whatever, my first couple of bites of sandwich #3 were as exciting and satisfying as during previous visits—I am not getting tired of these things—and just as I was trying to figure out the butter situation (do they just use a schmear of regular, or is it flavored?), Chef Kim hooked me up with the off-menu slaw, a sweet and pickled tangle of daikon radish that brought a whole new dimension to the experience. Really psyched to see what Change and Kim come up with next.
Bottom line for Chang chain-watchers: even though my three-day Fuku binge saw variations in both heat and crunch, each sandwich was excellent.
As far as sides go, although Chang has been openly (albeit playfully) dismissive about his Fuku Salad, it actually makes for a decent pairing with the sandwich. This is a grain-based dish--a nice and chewy farro--served not-too-cold with bright bursts of mint, some bitter greens, juicy mandarin oranges, and some sort of black seed. It comes with an orange dressing that you don't really need but what the heck, it's good, so pour it on. You wouldn't come to Fuku and only order this, but the salad's a solid side.
The Fuku French Fries are pretty bad. Or, at least, there's really no reason at all to eat them. It's tough to figure out what Chang was thinking here, starting with the fact that he's opted for that least appealing of all the fry genres, the Steak Fry, which comes in dead last after Waffle, Regular, Tots, Curly, Skinny, Sweet Potato, Shoestring, and Crinkle-Cut. You may be tempted by the $12 Lunch Combo (sandwich, fries, soft drink) but really, if it's variety you seek in your meal here, skip the spuds and get that salad instead.
If waiting 45+ minutes for a jubilant standing-room-only chicken sandwich Experience sounds good to you, then by all means check out Fuku soon, and witness what could be the very beginnings of Shake-Shack-sized monster. You won't be disappointed. Even after going there three days in a row I would head back in a heartbeat just to have that sandwich again.
Fuku is located at 163 First Avenue, just north of 10th Street, and is currently open for lunch only, Wednesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Note again: right now they're accepting credit cards only. (eatfuku.com)