Chef Jassy Lee is a living embodiment of an international fried chicken triangulation, a case study in the global affinity for spicy, battered, and crispy poultry. Born in Taishan, Guangdong, she emigrated to the U.S. in 1991 with her parents, but also visited relatives in Belize, members of that country’s Chinese immigrant community, which is largely responsible for another beloved expression of deep-fried poultry. Lee’s Belizean family owned restaurants and served fried chicken—uhhh, BFC?—marinated in a multichile blend, battered and fried, and draped with sweet ketchup.
Back in Chicago, the family went on to open two western-suburban Chinese restaurants they sourced from a common commissary in Bridgeport. A few years ago Lee left them behind for a packaging business in Los Angeles. She remained a dedicated cook, though—the photos she sent to me of dozens of bacchanalian feasts she’s cooked for family and friends over the years are jaw-dropping. Belizean fried chicken was one formative influence on the recipe she later developed. But it was also inspired by the Nashville hot-chicken craze that’s swept the country, emanating from the legendary Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville, where chicken is battered and fried, then mopped in a magma of oil, chile, spices, and sugar.
Lee returned last year to help care for her father, who was recovering from cancer. It’s he who’s behind the name “Big Boss”—growing up poor, that’s how he described a friend’s father who could afford to feed his family a full meal of rice each day.
When Lee came back, her family still owned the Halsted Street kitchen that serviced their suburban restaurants. It was there that she decided to focus, opening Big Boss Spicy Fried Chicken to specialize in her particular mash-up of Belizean marinated chicken—not sauced with ketchup, but with a molten Nashville-style chile mop.
The fresh birds Lee sources for Big Boss are enormous, and conjure an image of the impressive quantities of chile powder she must go through each night when she packs and seals them tight with a blend of ghost, habanero, serrano, and four other chiles before the battering and frying and the final application of heat and sweetness. Lee scouted notable Nashville hot-chicken locations to research the last step, and offers hers in five spice levels, the middle of which is loaded with a respectable but by no means excruciating amount of capsicum and encrusted in a shatteringly crispy crust. Though most of her business is carryout, her product is best appreciated immediately on one of the stools at the counter looking out onto Halsted, where one’s enveloped in a kind of graffiti-art womb that mimics the fireworks in the mouth.
Whole, half, and quarter birds, wings, and tenders are available as well, though it’s Lee’s chicken sandwich that’s become something of an Instagram celebrity: an enormous boneless, brick-red fried thigh that dwarfs the bun it comes on, the cooling coleslaw crown and raw jalapeño effectively canceling each other out over the fury of the chicken. Lee offers a few other options: chicken curry, chicken teriyaki, chicken soup, and chicken salad, plus an assortment of sauces and fried sides. But her Belizean-Nashville hybrid (BFC/NFC?) needs nothing more than perhaps a side of ranch to tame the higher spice levels.
AS IT TURNS OUT, this was a very good spring for fried chicken. Shortly before Lee opened Big Boss, across the city another chef in another once-private commercial kitchen was bouncing back from a restaurant closing.
For years, David Rodriguez labored in relative obscurity in kitchens such as Gibsons, GT Fish & Oyster, and the Kennison. Then last year, he and his mother opened Xocome Antojeria in southwest-side Archer Heights, which for a time became a Chicago food media darling for its house-made tortillas, quesadillas, and tlacoyos.
Xocome was a bit of a shooting star. After just six months the family rented out the space to an employee when Rodriguez’s mom had to go to Mexico for an extended visit,* and he put his attention into a small Humboldt Park counter-service-only fast-food joint with a kitchen and register protected by bulletproof glass. Rodriguez was considering removing the protector, covering up the windows, and using the space to entertain potential clients for his catering business.
Instead he tapped his extensive experience frying chicken for staff meals and opened Chicken Pollo Shack. Like Lee, Rodriguez offers a world-beating spicy chicken sandwich, this one a double stack of fried chicken thighs served buffalo style. He also offers a double cheeseburger modeled on the south side’s endemic Big Baby. But prompted by the kind of media attention Xocome received, Rodriguez has been selling ridiculous amounts of fried chicken, burning through 5,000 takeout menus in a just a few months.
He isn’t tied to any particular kind of regional variant, though there is a nod to K[orean]FC with the addition of gochujang to his overnight buttermilk-brine marinade, along with sriracha, mustard, garlic, onion, and black pepper. And that’s only after an overnight brine with salt and bay leaf that renders the birds explosively juicy beneath a craggy crust resulting from a double dredge through flour seasoned with black pepper and cardamom, among other seasonings.
CPS is mostly carryout too, though Rodriguez provides a picnic table where, if you’re playing it right, you’ll attend to this chicken right away—particularly if you’re pairing it with one of his house-made sauces and dips, familiar but significantly boosted by his downtown training. He purees both fermented and grilled habaneros for his West Side Fire sauce, sweetened and brightened with honey and orange juice, while he whips his own aioli into the buttermilk and herbs for the ranch, and sweetens his buffalo sauce with some of the West Side Fire sauce and Hawaiian Punch.
Another sauce is critical to the sleeper at Chicken Pollo Shack. I was dazed enough by the fried chicken that I was prepared to ignore Rodriguez’s grilled option until a colleague told me he was so devoted to it he orders it at least once a week. Like the fried chicken, Rodriguez follows a two-step brine-marinade process, the latter part employing a tart
adobo-style medium with cilantro, bay leaf, cinnamon, cayenne, paprika, onion, and lemon. Once the meat hits the grill it takes on a delectable char, which Rodriguez mitigates with splashes of the marinade, and finishes with a mop of what he calls a “simple modified chimichurri”—cilantro, oregano, parsley, lemon, black pepper, and roasted garlic—that puts this bird into a category by itself. Rodriguez humbly says it puts him in mind of summer. For me it’s the best chicken I’ve eaten all year.
And I don’t say that lightly during a season when there’s so much good commissary-fried chicken to be had. One more decent CFC joint and it’s a trend. v
*More good news: Rodriguez and his mother have reopened Xocome Antojeria at its original location.
Correction: Due to an editing error, the headlines for this review originally misstated the location of Chicken Pollo Shack. It is Humboldt Park, not Albany Park.