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A Noble Bird

While writing my review of Ya Hala (see page 47), I actually stopped halfway through and headed back to Colorado Boulevard to pick up a couple to-go orders of the unbelievably addictive baklava, because I only had a half-order at home and I knew that wasn't going to be enough to hold me through the night. While I was there, I also had the kitchen knock off another one of its grilled half chickens. Why? First, because the wife was making faux posole and needed some picked chicken to get things rolling. But also because after the baklava, Ya Hala's simple chicken was the dish that most impressed me.

Included on nearly every menu, maligned, oppressed, forced into roles it was never meant to play, the chicken is a bad chef's best friend. Chickens, you see, are cheap. Chicken parts are cheap, whole chickens are cheap, chicken wings and feet and legs and breasts all blessedly inexpensive and capable of holding up under nearly any imaginable culinary abuse. Like the slutty cheerleader in high school, a chicken can have almost anything done to it, be complicit in nearly any vile or profane act, and still be popular the next morning.

In the grand hierarchy of deep prep and menu design, chicken is the dish used to dispose quickly of customers who don't really know what they want to eat. If they're not going to order the pavé of salmon, the beef daube, the duck breast or oily garbage fish that, through a chef's own skill and genius, has been turned into something edible; if they're not going to order anything that they don't immediately recognize, that they can't pronounce or that (like an unfussed-with steak or chop) costs more than eighteen dollars, they're going to order the chicken. That's just a given. And many chefs, understanding this and accepting it with a certain veteran grace, will devote a slot on their boards to some simple chicken preparation: a marsala, breast-over-starch, a grilled chicken with potatoes and mixed veg, or chicken par-cooked, flashed under the salamander to order, then hit with some recognizable sauce before it's slung to the rail.

Sling hash long enough, though, and this kind of thing starts to eat away at you -- seeing the same bullshit chicken plates going out again and again, seeing the same meat orders of pre-pack breasts, tenders, flash-frozen cutlets and fingers coming in week after week. At some point, a good cook or chef will take a long, second look at a chicken and see not just dollar signs, but a good animal out of which good food might be made. There's nothing inherently wrong with the chicken: The meat is sturdy but not tough, bland but not entirely tasteless, and it takes flavor well, bearing up under innumerable cooking methods. A good cook will begin to see the possibility of doing something decent with his chickens -- at which point the poor bird stops being Susie Flatback, the skanky pompom girl, and becomes Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, a whore garlanded in Tiffany gems.

Poulet chasseur; blue-footed Bresse chickens, their necks broken to order by the specialty meat man, dressed up in frills and sauces excavated from the depths of Escoffier, Bocuse and Beard; capons nutted in their youth so they get fat and lazy like suburban husbands, plucked, rubbed down with salt and packed with truffled stuffing; chickens injected with emulsions and fluids and unguents in the sweet spot between meat and breastbone, skins peeled back with the tip of a clean paring knife, lifted and stuffed with frozen slivers of beurre d'Isigny, sliced truffle (ungodly expensive), their organ cavities filled with smashed lemons, penetrated by sprigs of whole rosemary, thyme, lemongrass; chickens glazed with patissière's concoctions of orange or apricot or (fuck me, I'm so guilty of this one) honey and tamarind; chickens split in half along the breast (the knife always questioning which side to come down on, often making up its mind unexpectedly to a spectacular bloom of the cook's blood on the board), massaged with Normandy butter; or, in the best cases, chickens just broiled, skin-on, legs cotted with foil, and served over a mountain of crisp frites with a simple sauce moutard and maybe a couple of French olives on the side.

This final preparation is what the good cooks eventually fall to as a means of expurgating their chicken-related guilt. It's a solid, traditional workingman's presentation that does honor to both the chicken and the person ordering it. But it's only after years of chicken abuse that the white jacket lands here, and even this admittedly fine method is not the best way to treat a chicken. Even this is a bit...gaudy. A little too chi-chi for the perfect asceticism to which a good cook aspires.

 

Oddly enough, the chicken he really wants to cook is the chicken served at Ya Hala and at hundreds of places like Ya Hala in marginal neighborhoods all around the world, chicken given the most spare peasant preparation imaginable. Chicken cooked this way speaks to a deep meme in cultures where the slaughter of any animal was (and is) seen as a cause for great celebration. A chicken is an animal as noble as any and more so than some (like, say, Lindsay Lohan), and to see it respected in such a way -- neither gussied up nor dumbed down, tortured or fucked with unnecessarily -- is why so many of us cooks, present and former, could learn a lot by watching and tasting what goes on in the neighborhoods of our immigrant brothers-in-arms.

Food free-for-all: Finally, something good coming out of a cooking school! I was talking to Brad Birky who, along with his wife, Libby, just opened the SAME Cafe at 2023 East Colfax Avenue on October 20. And during the course of our conversation, Brad revealed that "other than a couple years of fast food in high school," he'd never worked in the restaurant industry before. But after some courses in cooking and restaurant management at Metro State, he thought he was ready.

"I know," he told me. "The things you learn in books and class are no substitute for experience like working on the line, but we did what we could."

So why am I suddenly lauding this kind of bootstrap, up-from-nothing, schoolboy hubris? Why am I not tearing both Brad and Libby new pieholes for being so presumptuous as to think that a couple of classes, some history of burger-flipping, and simple desire are enough to sustain them in this business? I've certainly taken the verbal cat-o-nine to others for less.

Because the Birkys have two rather interesting things going for them. First, they do have some experience: They've been working for the past four years as volunteers at the Catholic Worker House, a transitional facility for people coming off a bad jag of homelessness or worse. One day a week, Brad and Libby helped prepare meals for the residents. They wrote menus, they cooked, they served -- and when that was all done, they sat down and ate with the people they were feeding. "We liked the feeling of being able to do that for people," Brad said. And the idea for the restaurant grew out of that spirit.

Which leads me to the second interesting thing: All the food at SAME is free.

Okay, not free, exactly. But there are no prices on the menu, and there's no cash register in the place, just a donation box by the front door where money is taken. "The idea is that if you're down on your luck, just pay what you can," the Birkys advise. "If your luck is on the upswing, you have the opportunity -- not obligation -- to help out others [by paying a little more]."

Seem a bit strange? Just friggin' bonkers? Maybe, but this idea has worked in other places. In Florida, I used to frequent a Cuban lunch counter where the waitresses, under orders from the owner, would feed the immigrant workers for whatever they were able to pay. In Salt Lake City, the One World Cafe, owned and operated by acupuncturist-turned-cook Denise Cerreta, does the same. The Birkys visited One World, trying to determine how a restaurant could survive so long under the pay-what-you-can philosophy. And now here in Denver, we have SAME -- which stands for So All May Eat, also the name of the Birkys' pending non-profit organization. At SAME, the ever-changing menu runs from white chili and squash soup to brie-cranberry-and-chicken pizzas, curried rice salad, blueberry cobbler and pan bagnat.

And even though the restaurant had only been up and running for about a week when I talked to Brad (not counting dry runs and friends-and-family dinners), he was already seeing some surprisingly decent numbers. "So far, we've been averaging about $9.50 to $10 per person," he said, and moving between ten and thirty people through the dining room, five days a week. Granted, that's not much -- but it's a start. And with just two of them doing all the work -- prepping, cooking, taking orders, serving, doing the dishes and cleaning up -- I'm not sure how much more the Birkys could handle.

"We wanted to be able to make a good, healthy meal available for everyone," Brad explained, "not just for people with a lot of money. Anyone can come here and eat."

Leftovers: Over at 1313 East Sixth Avenue, Fruition is making the final arrangements to take over Somethin' Else, and chef Sean Kelly is making his final arrangements for handing over the keys. Meanwhile, a few blocks away at 609 Corona Street, owner Mike Huff almost sold the Table 6 space to Frank Bonanno (chef/owner of Luca d'Italia and Mizuna, where the new owners of Fruition -- Paul Attardi and Alex Seidel -- used to work).

 

News of that deal/no deal situation had been making the rounds like lightning, with both parties under non-disclosure agreements. But I was less interested in the details than in what the hell Bonanno was thinking. I mean, he already has Luca and Mizuna, which are brilliant. But his 1700 Vine Street operations -- Milagro Taco Bar, Harry's Chop House and that back-room jazz-bar thing -- were not brilliant. And he was looking for something else? That didn't make a lot of sense, so I gave him a call.

"Here's the thing," Bonanno explained. "I no longer have any interest at Harry's or Milagro." In fact, he hasn't for about three months. "My partner and I had different philosophies on running a restaurant," Bonanno added, which I thought was a very politic way to put it, because frankly, those two places made Bonanno look like an amateur, a flake and a rip-off artist -- three things that he's definitely not.

So with the Bonanno empire cut in half and the dead weight gone, it makes sense that Bonanno's in the market for a new space. He's already laid on a newly minted ops guy, Chris Gregory, to watch the front of the house, bar and office for him; Gregory is a hard-core veteran, having done five years at Mel's alongside Bonanno, then spending time at Barolo before opening Adega, opening Mirepoix and coming on as general manager at Mizuna.

"I'm a chef," Bonanno said. "I can watch the kitchens. And between Chris and Jackie [Bonanno's wife], they can discuss the fine points of service and wine. We can always get better. And that's always been my goal."

And although Table 6's location, so close to his other two restaurants, would have been handy, Bonanno's moving forward. "I'm still looking," he told me. "I'm definitely still looking."

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Ya Hala Grill - Closed

2100 S. Colorado Blvd.
Denver, CO 80222

303-758-9376

www.yahalagrill.com


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