All chicken, all the time [restaurant review]
Bird Talk delivers variations on an American classic
Thanks to the pandemic I’ve been gravitating toward restaurants that offer food that travels well. Looking at it from a historical perspective, this makes fried chicken a natural. It was a component of picnic lunches in the mid-19th century, a staple at the Harvey House railroad cafes in the 1870s, and the only entrée offered for the first inflight dinners in the 1930s. When properly made it has the combination of salt, spice, crunchy batter, and succulent meat to please almost everybody, even if it’s served some distance from where it’s made. It’s probably the most hallowed take-out meal in American cuisine.
The Peninsula’s newest fried chicken specialist is Bird Talk, a quirky establishment in a strip mall on Western in Rancho Palos Verdes. The place is decorated with cartoons by a friend of the owner, featuring various movie and cartoon characters depicted as chickens. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is, but trying to figure out all the inside jokes in the pictures gives you something to do while you wait for your meal. And you are likely to do some waiting if you don’t order in advance, because the thicker cuts take 20 minutes to cook.
The menu is not well thought out in some ways. There is a strange distinction between the “wet” lemon pepper seasoning and the “dry” lemon pepper. When I called to ask about this, the person who answered the phone explained, “They’re actually both wet, but the dry seasoning is mild and the wet is spicy.” I had to ask again because I was fairly certain I had misheard her, but that was actually the case. There’s nothing else that is quite that odd, but they do have some sauces that are named without being explained. There were also some odd decisions about the side dishes, which I’ll get to in a minute, but first I have to talk about the thing that brings people here.
Chicken is their business, and though they’ll grill a breast for a sandwich, most of the menu involves chicken coated in batters of various spice and seasoning levels. The birds are offered as tenders, wings, breast meat sandwiches, or as half or whole birds. On one visit the owner mentioned they use premium, never-frozen meat. When ordered as tenders, on sandwiches, or bone-in, these are offered in their “original” classic style batter, either dipped in honey butter or not, or with a spicy Cajun or spicier Nashville style. For some reason the wings only are offered with all of those plus the aforementioned lemon pepper sauce, or with mango habanero, garlic parmesan, “signature bird sauce,” or Buffalo style. Over the course of two visits we tried all four of the main styles, plus an order of the garlic parmesan wings.
We tried two sandwiches, the original and the Cajun, both came with pickles and coleslaw. The original also had buttermilk ranch mayo that went well with the lightly seasoned batter, which had just enough pepper and spice to stand up to the creamy dressing. The Cajun sandwich came with a ghost pepper aioli that was less spicy than I expected, given that most items with ghost pepper pummel your tongue into submission. I did have to stop eating the sandwich once to wipe the sweat from my brow and tears from my eyes, but that’s all. The batter had both black and red pepper heat with some other seasonings, but these didn’t overwhelm everything else between the buns.
My wife ordered honey butter dip on her half chicken, and I didn’t expect to like it because honey butter is often too sweet. It wasn’t overwhelming and in fact was pretty good, though you should have some paper towels available and be prepared to wash off the sticky stuff afterward. I slightly preferred the original without sauce, but would have a bite again if she orders it.
She wouldn’t have a bite of my Nashville style chicken, because the batter was very aggressively spiced – this wasn’t the hottest Nashville I’ve had, but it was close. There was a lip-burning endorphin rush with every bite, and layers of spicy burn from black pepper, red pepper, and pepper oil. If you like complex heat, this is the thing to get, and if a half bird is too much food it’s great the next day served cold.
A variety of sauces are available, including a sweet BBQ sauce, standard honey mustard and blue cheese, and something called comeback sauce that seems to be a spiced mayo with some hot sauce. There is also something called “signature bird dip,” a mayo-based sauce that I found a bit bland with the original but was cooling with the Cajun of Nashville chicken.
The side dishes here are tater tots either loaded or plain, buttermilk waffles, coleslaw, or fried pickles, and the portions are generous for the $3 price. However, there are some unfortunate choices. The loaded tots are described as being topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, and green onions, but instead of grated cheese that melts over the fries, it’s a ladleful of the goopy, slightly sweet cheese sauce that goes over movie theater nachos. This almost instantly expunges the crispness of the tots, and is a strange decision, misleadingly described. It may help cool down the heat for someone unwary who has just had a bite of the Nashville, but that’s all it’s good for in my book. The tots are better when left plain, and if they have cooled while on the trip home, they can be re-crisped in a toaster oven, unlike French fries.
The buttermilk waffle was okay, but not great, and the other two sides, fried pickles and coleslaw, were actually quite good. The slaw was made with just a bit of mayo so that the cabbage and other vegetable flavors are preserved, and it had just a tinge of sweetness. It worked both in the sandwiches and by itself. The fried pickles were quite a surprise, because I think of these as county fair food novelties, but these were actually good. The dills had been thinly sliced and battered, and though they arrived at home soft, a minute in the toaster oven restored them very well. If you like a salty moist crunch inside a dry crunch, that’s what you get. Have water handy, because the salt gets to you, but give it a try.
Bird Talk is still evolving, and while I was waiting for my food on one visit the owner mentioned plans for expanding their offerings. There are a few kinks to work out, particularly with their menu descriptions, but they have a solid base to start from.
Bird Talk is at 29505 South Western Avenue, Rancho Palos Verdes. Open daily noon – 9 p.m. Parking lot, Delivery via various services. (310) 935-7759. BirdTalkChicken.com. Pen
by Richard Foss