When I was a kid, our family would visit the local fast food chain called Henny Penny which specialised in fried chicken. It wasn’t as popular as Kentucky Fried Chicken (now known as KFC), however, it was the main sponsor of the local football team, popular enough and because advertising works – we went there a lot. My only gripe with it was that the chicken skin was always soggy, resulting in an unpleasant taste and texture as the chicken continued to steam in the box that it came in. It was those experiences that fuelled an obsession in finding or creating the crispiest food items: The crispiest pork crackling, fish skin and chicken skin – it had to be crispy!
In 2013, my quest for all things crispy led me to Guatemala, where I had the crispiest and most succulent chicken at a local chain called Pollo Campero. I can still remember the moment, after surviving three days of sailing from Belize to Guatemala, we ended up at the restaurant in Antigua with table service and savoured that salty and crispy skin chicken. I never thought that it would be possible to beat, but that was until earlier in 2015, when I went to a place called Su Su in District 3, Hoi Chi Minh City.
Vietnamese aren’t really known for their crispy fried chicken as the cooking methods tend to favour dishes that can sit in the open or in a pot for the entire day. So when I saw an Instagram image of the chicken from Su Su from Legal Nomads, I immediately knew that I had to go.
Apart from the crispy chicken, the unique selling point and to an extent, the attraction of Su Su is how the chicken is cooked. Rather than using a deep fryer where the chicken is submerged in hot oil, the owner has devised an ingenious way of frying chicken by engineering a hot oil waterfall system. I was just as keen to see this as well.
The restaurant is unassuming, set in what I could see was the front section of the owner’s home. Fortified by barb wired fence, there are only a few tables outside on the footpath where customers can sit and enjoy some finger lickin’ chicken. As I arrived just after the lunch period, I was politely informed that all of the drumstick and thigh cuts ie. the best parts, were sold out, and only the wing/breast sections were leftover. I’m a fan of the wing tips but I find that the breast can be hit and miss and lacks the flavour and juiciness. Reluctantly, I agreed to give it a go anyway.
Not content with sitting and waiting on the plastic stool, I enter the property so that I can catch a glimpse of the waterfall fryer in action. At a flick of the switch, it roars into life and a stream of oil from the bottom tray is pumped up and rains down on a rack where the chicken pieces are placed. It’s obvious that somebody, parts genius and part madman designed this. I was expecting to find a flux capacitor lurking out the back.
In a large bowl beside the fryer were the wing and breast cuts that had already been partially cooked. They look braised and cooked about 80% of the way which made sense as this contraption was designed just to apply the final crispy coat on the chicken. At this point, the cook instructs me to take as many photos as I want, knowing that the show is equally as important as the end product. Using a pair of tongs about two feet in length and without any protection (we are in Asia after all), he places the pieces of chicken onto the tray whilst trying not to risk serving up crispy skin human forearms arms as well. You wouldn’t get this in KFC let alone allow anybody under 18 years old to operate this potential death trap.
The colour of the oil had an orange tint to it and didn’t look too appetising and I wondered if it was a case of the the continual recycling of the oil throughout the machine during the day. I convinced myself that it was just from the colour caused by the caramelisation of the the skin, leaching back into the oil, thus super charging it with the oh so sweet flavours from previous chicken pieces.
Next to the fryer was another invention conjured by the owner. What looked like a shallow commercial sized dough mixer was actually an automated stir frying machine which was used to make the fried rice. Somehow, he’d managed to automate the basics of Asian cooking. The young chef threw in a few cups of what looked like pink rice and let the machine do the stirring and frying.
The plate of chicken that comes out is minimal in its appearance. Just a piece of chicken, the pink coloured rice, a few cucumber slices and a couple of sprigs of Vietnamese mint. Accompanying the chicken is a brown sauce with a thick consistency which I’ve never had before. I can taste hoisin and also what seems to be peanut flavours while the remaining flavours allude my taste buds.
Zeroing in on the chicken, I give it a tap with the fork and the sound it made is music to my ears. There’s steam still coming out of the meat but I still pick it up with my hands anyway and I go for the breast. The crunch of the skin scores a perfect ten and then followed up with the texture of meat that is hot and juicy from the waterfall frying method. The overall flavour is good, but despite it being so crispy, there is a hint of oiliness. Funnily enough, it doesn’t detract from my experience.
As for the rice? I don’t think it’s necessary, but perhaps it’s a way for the owner to show off his innovative spirit and a case of style of substance. The rice didn’t have much flavour to it other than oil and garlic. If it had some vegetables, it could be a good compromise – but I wasn’t there for vegetables.
I left feeling satisfied and would return again with a strategy of arriving earlier to what I would hope may be cleaner oil and to try the thigh cut and order an extra piece of chicken, instead of having a side of rice. All thriller and no filler as I would say. I also think that it would be best to enjoy the chicken with a fizzy drink to cleanse the palate of any residual oiliness .
Su Su is located at 55 Tú Xương, P. 7, Quận 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Price is 40,000VND ($2) for plate of chicken and rice.
How do you like your chicken cooked?
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