- Wendy Evans
Despite its versatility, chicken has always been a culinary bridesmaid. Even though its hot cousin duck confit has risen in popularity, chicken sits in the corner alone, sipping its cosmo while the Kobe beef goes home with Keanu Reeves. Maybe it's because of the unfair stigma that chicken's flavor is so nondescript that it can be assigned anywhere—if you've ever said something that isn't chicken tastes like chicken, you are complicit in this slander. Lately, however, I've noticed a wave of new restaurants that have consecrated themselves to this noble prince of poultry. Among the most recent additions is a little place called Birdhouse (856 E. 900 South, 801-441-2213), which has created a menu that features chicken recipes from around the world—from the spicy piri piri marinades of Mozambique to the classic American fried chicken sandwich.
Birdhouse is the new kid at the Pago Restaurant Group's lunch table, which is an in-crowd that has cultivated a solid reputation within the downtown food scene. In addition to Pago, the group's fine-dining crown jewel, this league operates the recently rebranded Bar George, Hub & Spoke Diner, Trestle Tavern and Birdhouse's next-door neighbor, East Liberty Tap House. Like Birdhouse's protein of choice, it's hanging out with some well-established and well-connected pals. When rolling with a squad like Pago's, it can be hard to stand out and strut your stuff.
The fact that Birdhouse is so different—both conceptually and ideologically—from its siblings, is a good start. It serves as a fast-casual, family-friendly alternative to nearby gastropub East Liberty Tap House and Pago itself. Their patio seating is complete with wooden bleachers that impart a relaxed, summer-in-the-ballpark vibe. It's a shame that we've got a few months of winter ahead of us before we can take full advantage of how fun it will be to munch on fried chicken while we watch 9th and 9th bustle. Inside, Birdhouse maintains this no-frills atmosphere, though I thought the bales of straw next to the waiting area were a bit much. Farm to table is great, but farm on table is another story.
Once you get to the menu, it's clear that preparing chicken in all its glory is Birdhouse's focal point. This level of focus is also on-trend—niche restaurants that devote themselves to one concept are starting to pop up all over the place. Birdhouse manages to set itself apart from other specialty restaurants in this respect because of its variety of chicken sandwiches. For example, the classic ($9.95, pictured) is a close relative of the chicken sandwiches that recently shared fried fisticuffs over social media—crispy fried chicken with the vinegar acidity of pickles on a buttered bun. Birdhouse's take adds their housemade aioli and tomatoes, which balance the richness of deep-fried chicken with a hint of heat and a sharp spritz of tartness from the pickles and tomato.
In stark contrast to this sandwich comes the grilled chicken sausage ($9.95), which takes the immutable canvas of a hot dog and colors it with hues of Dijon aioli, pico de gallo and queso fresco. It hearkens to the creative versions of hot dogs one can get south of the border—a flame-grilled sausage made from free-range chicken and then filled to the brim with buttery queso fresco and fresh, herbaceous pico. I may have enjoyed the classic sandwich just a bit more, but any place that throws a nod to sausage-craft and hot doggery has its heart in the right place.
I'm an immediate fan of Birdhouse's poultry-centric concept—they even have a plant-based chik'n burger ($8.95) which is a veganized version of their classic—but that fandom is a little jostled by the inclusion of a burger, tasty as it may be. The Double Stack Burger ($9.95) has two Niman Ranch beef patties with Birdhouse aioli, but its presence on a menu dominated by a variety of chicken offerings makes it feel out of place—like when the popular kid shows up to play Magic: The Gathering with you and your dorky friends. As hallowed as burgers are in my book, the Double Stack's existence here upsets the balance that Birdhouse is striving to create.
It's clear that Birdhouse is ironing out a few wrinkles, but the overall concept is solid, attractive and, most importantly, delicious. I'm looking forward to spending many summer evenings hanging out on the bleachers ruminating on the crispy transcendence that is fried chicken before catching a movie at the Tower.