There are three street corners, each less than half a mile apart, bounding an otherwise quiet north-side neighborhood and forming an invisible triangle that attracts individuals with extraordinary powers of deferred gratification. The points on this Avondale Triangle are occupied by Hot Doug’s, Kuma’s Corner, and, most recently, Honey Butter Fried Chicken. All are purveyors of cheffy, embellished fast food with devoted supporters who are willing to line up and wait for sustenance that the cooks prepare in a fraction of the time it takes for a customer to secure a seat.
On other planets people wait in line for Olive Garden, so such waits are no indication of a singular experience. Hot Doug’s, which excels at sausage, and Kuma’s, which is good at making burgers and scandalizing Catholics, have had years to grow their respective cults. But partnering chefs Joshua Kulp and Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter had lines out the door on day one, thanks in part to a sticky, sweaty honeymoon with food-media first responders, but also from goodwill banked during years of fronting the popular underground Sunday Dinner Club. Nonpartisan eaters, however, should be wondering if it’s really worth the wait.
It’s encouraging that Honey Butter is largely a specialist. It isn’t crowding its fryers with anything but Amish chicken parts, brined and double-buttermilk-battered and dusted in smoked paprika. In some ways this mildly spicy seasoning, which seems to intensify in leftovers, approximates a lighter version of Prince’s Hot Chicken—Nashville’s famous (or infamous) cayenne-powered yardbird. At Honey Butter, it’s spiced for folks who may not like to climb the Scoville scale too high. It would be great if they could season to order, but instead the rest of us will have to make do with the Co-Op Hot Sauce on the table. This chicken has a thick, bready, enjoyably crunchy crust that occasionally fails to adhere to its base, but that’s hardly its most controversial quality.
It’s boneless. Or rather the thighs and breasts, the most and least desirable parts of the chicken, respectively, are surgically altered to remove the bird’s structural support. It’s an unorthodox and disturbing presentation which was only recently explored with any depth. The logic is admirable. The cooks bone out the thighs and breasts to save on waste, to repurpose them for things like stock, and to streamline the frying process. All reasonable goals that result in an otherwise quality bird that feels—at least texturally—overprocessed, like something selected from freezer cases across the land by a demographic that would rather avoid the truth that its food wasn’t once alive. That is to say nothing of the fact that bones impart flavor to any piece of meat when cooked—just as they do to water when making stock.
The legs are unmolested, but on each of my visits I was dealt an unbalanced proportion: six breasts, a single thigh, and a single leg in each eight-piece order. Luck of the draw, I suppose—or do those Amish farmers have a sinister breeding program we don’t know about?
Honey Butter’s more conspicuous signature is the sweet compound butter you’re meant to slather on the hot chicken, which should make sense to fans of syrup-drizzled chicken and waffles, but it is much more enjoyable on the bite-size, honeycomb-and-honeybee-embossed corn muffins that come with each order.
Like the chicken bones, these muffins are repurposed for other things. They’re deep-fried and crumbled and used to crown the glutinous chicken potpies, which incorporate the chicken tenders excised from the breasts. Among the handful of regular and special side orders in this late part of the growing season you might find tough, undercooked stalks of Chinese broccoli topping a cup of creamy goat cheese grits one day, and the same unforgiving vegetable mixed in with a moist cheddar bread stuffing on another. There’s also a less dentally challenging, nearly liquid cup of creamed corn dosed with a vividly colored but mild green curry. The wings from Honey Butter’s chickens appear as an occasional special, glazed and roasted, while the tenders from the breasts also appear as shredded confit ballast in a large bowl of house-made nachos garnished with candied jalapeños—every bit as messy as they’re meant to be.
A serviceable rotini and pimento cheese; a cold, oversweetened sweet potato salad; and a kale salad tossed with pomegranate seeds have tenure on the menu, as does a chocolate toffee cookie and the unfortunately named “dump cake of the day,” in one case an amorphous but terrifically crunchy and gooey peanut butter and grape glob.
So is any of this worth waiting for? Honey Butter’s line moves fast, and once you’re across the threshold it moves faster if you’re sipping any of the handful of light, refreshing cocktails. (There’s also a mix of canned and bottled craft and macro beer, and a red, a white, and a rosé bubbly by the glass.)
Once ordered, food is served fast, and in good weather there’s plenty of seating on the back patio. You will order at the counter, however, which forces the inane dilemma of tipping on services not yet provided. The servers themselves are friendly and expedient and worth the benefit of the doubt, but they could stand a bit more thorough drilling on the boneless issue. I’m sure it’s a question they get a lot, though none I asked had consistent or satisfying answers (a culinary school extern dispatched to my table explained the absence of skin on some pieces by saying it completely dissolved in the frying process).
My suggestion: defer your potential gratification, or dissatisfaction, until the lines at this well-intentioned but problematic spot begin to dwindle.