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The Find: House of Chicken

CookingLifestyle and Leisure

You may have had a moment in your life — a lot of Angelenos have — when your understanding of sushi completely transformed. Before, all you knew was big crass Americanized sushi rolls — you know, the kind with fried stuff and spicy mayo and avocado and teriyaki sauce — and then somebody handed you an unvarnished piece of perfect sashimi, and suddenly you understood. You got the pleasure of comprehending a beautiful thing.

Eating at House of Chicken is the same kind of thing, but for chicken. Its chicken kebab is subtle and tastes purely of the chicken itself. It makes you realize how cheap and tawdry so many of your earlier garlic chicken flings were.

House of Chicken is a tiny, almost invisible place — yet another kebab joint in the corner of a Hawthorne strip mall adrift in the Los Angeles sprawl. Maybe it's the goofy signage that draws you in — an excellent example from the happy-cartoon-chickens-invite-you-in-to-eat-their-brethren school. The menu is standard-issue: shawarmas and kebabs, in wraps or on combo plates.

But it feels peculiarly nice inside. It's a little happy green room with a big window into the kitchen; everything smells clean and fresh. There's a weirdly adorable ultra-green polka dot theme. The door to the kitchen bears the sign, "Don't mess with the Hawthorne PD." Everything about the room is lovingly immaculate, in that carefully tended, homemade way that only tiny family restaurants can truly achieve. Then, rising up out of the quiet, the smell of chicken on the grill creeps out of the kitchen.

This is the place for a chicken epiphany. It might make you realize that a lot of those other popular garlic chicken joints are built on the Taco Bell model of cookery: carefully engineered to push all the right buttons, hammering at you with fat-crisp and salt-garlic blasts but little other flavor.

But House of Chicken appeals to the aesthete in you. They trust the true flavor of chicken, and they trust you to be able to appreciate the experience. If most garlic chicken places are serving chicken crack, this place serves chicken brandy. For a $6 wrap in the back corner of a strip mall, squeezed into a row of auto body places, it's pretty remarkable.

Johnny Donikian and Virginia Ohanian, husband and wife, own and run the place. Donikian explains that, where most other chicken joints freeze and defrost their chicken, he has fresh chicken delivered every morning. It's a lot more work for him, and it means that he often runs out of chicken midday. "But when my customers call me and tell me it's the best chicken they've ever had in their life, it's worth it," says Donikian.

"Everything comes from Mom," says Donikian. His mother, Mayda Donikian, shows up each morning and takes care of the most important part: the marination of the chicken breast in her special recipe of yogurt, garlic and Armenian spices. All this before running off to her day job — babysitting in Beverly Hills.

The chicken kebab wrap is the purest experience. The chicken shawarma wrap is more intensely spiced but still modulated to let you taste the chicken itself, but flavored up. The happy medium, though, is the garlic chicken wrap, with those perfectly charred cubes of chicken kebab covered in delicate liquid garlic sauce.

The garlic sauce is zippy and lemony, with a teeny raw garlic bite, but it doesn't obliterate the chicken. This is a confident wrap. This is a wrap that says, "Here is chicken breast. It is a beautiful thing. It may be helped, but it should not be overwhelmed. You do not need to slather it in garlic and cinnamon. Trust us. Trust the chicken."

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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