Watching gifted chefs try to come up with a winning fast-casual formula can be a depressing sight. Too many start by taking the fun out of fast food. Fast food is built on childhood memories of quick, cheap, greasy joy. Successful fast-casual chains, though, are built on the tiresome realities of adult life. They promise a meal that takes slightly longer, costs a little more and won’t kill you quite as fast. Pleasure doesn’t even get a foot in the door.
But pleasure is what great chefs excel at producing. The job of a non-fast restaurant is to take us out of the daily grind and into a place where we can experience some pleasure. That takes a certain set of skills, and those skills aren’t much use in the compromised, better-than-the-alternative strictures of fast-casual dining. I doubt I would have liked Made Nice more if Daniel Humm hadn’t been in charge, but the place wasn’t helped by the spectacle of a talented person trying to do things he wasn’t very good at. It was like “Dancing With the Stars” without costumes or music.
Chintan Pandya, the chef, explores the fried-chicken traditions of India.Credit…Jenny Huang for The New York Times
Rowdy Rooster, a new fried-chicken operation from the chef Chintan Pandya, isn’t like that. Its tight East Village storefront is clearly a fast-casual restaurant — all the food is ordered at the counter, comes out in disposable containers in about five minutes and costs no more than $12.
Nothing, though, about Mr. Pandya’s brief and potent menu of Indian snacks and sandwiches suggests trade-offs in the name of convenience. This is not food you settle for when you don’t have a better idea. It is the better idea.
It may be relevant in this regard to note that almost everything at the Rowdy Rooster is deep-fried.
The point of the restaurant, opened in February by Mr. Pandya and his business partner, Roni Mazumdar, through their Unapologetic Foods group, is fried chicken. You know this from the name, the subtitle (Indian Fried Chicken) printed on the awning over First Avenue, the rooster mural painted in a style derived from Mughal inlay art and a few stray wall hangings that look as if they were picked up at some poultry farmer’s yard sale.
Still, one of the ways Rowdy Rooster stands apart from other rapid-fire chicken outfits is that you can avoid chicken completely and still have a meal that makes all your dashboard lights flash at once.
I’ve spent desultory afternoons wandering the East Village as I sniffed around for a snack that could make me feel as satisfied and alive as Rowdy Rooster’s vada pao does. This is, of course, the sandwich of battered and fried mashed potatoes on a bun; it is consumed, one-handedly, on streets all over Mumbai, Mr. Pandya’s hometown. His version, nearly a replica of the one he serves at Adda Indian Canteen in Queens, derives its power from thecha, a condiment of coconut and garlic mashed with a profusion of dried chiles that is poured over the potato patty.
People who believe that the ideal side dish with fried potatoes is more fried potatoes can order the vada pao, with oblong potato chips wearing a cloak of batter that fits them like a puffy down jacket. There is, too, a small pile of thumb-size eggplant pakora.
If you prefer your vegetables on the end of a fork, there is a very spirited interpretation of chili cauliflower. A similar fried cauliflower dish, gobi Manchurian, is sometimes found slicked down, like a duck in an oil spill, by a sauce that has the cloying sweetness and negligible spiciness of bottled barbecue sauce. This is not the case with the sauce on Rowdy Rooster’s chili cauliflower, where fresh and dried chiles create a complex flavor and heat comes at you in waves.
The chili chicken is doused with this sauce, too. It shines darkly, invitingly, and only uncorks its assault of spice once you are crunching away at the firm, crisp fried shell, by which time it is too late.
Boneless chicken is used for this dish, for a three-piece bucket called the Smooth Operator and, of course, for the sandwiches (Lil’ Rowdy and Big Rowdy). The bones are left inside the four smallish, cut-up pieces sold under the name Bad to the Bone, which is probably the item that delivers the most flavor and crunch per cubic inch. No matter what shape it starts out in, the chicken is brined first, marinated in yogurt and then cooked like a pakora — rolled in a seasoned blend of flours and plunged into hot oil.
This produces a crust that is light enough to have some delicacy when served dry, with nothing more than a sprinkling of ground chiles. But it is also substantial enough to survive being drenched in chile sauce or pressed between halves of a bun to make the Lil’ and Big Rowdies.
There is nothing radical about these sandwiches. Mint chutney and scallion yogurt are spooned over the chicken, and pickled onions are tucked in below the top bun. The bottom bun glistens with drippings of the dark chile butter brushed over the chicken, giving whichever Rowdy you are eating a steady, warm buzz as sustained and suggestive and enveloping as the drone of a tanpura.
Mr. Mazumdar has called Rowdy Rooster “a food truck without wheels.” Certainly the tight quarters and limited offerings are trucklike. (Apart from a mango lassi that’s as thick as a milkshake, all the beverages are canned, bottled or boxed.) This could be a limitation, but Rowdy Rooster makes it a source of strength.
Venture capital and initial public offerings began to tempt chefs to dream up fast-casual visions in the past decade or so. But the world has had access to intense flavors at low prices for a long time — for a few centuries, in fact. We didn’t call it fast-casual, though. It was just street food.
What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.
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