You smell it as soon as you enter the restaurant: a faint hint of oily, burnt chocolate that's slightly acrid, like fryer grease but sweeter and duskier. What must it be like to work at ChocoChicken? What must you smell like when you come home after a long shift?
A restaurant dedicated to chocolate-flavored chicken. It sounds like a joke. And when Adam Fleischman, founder of the Umami empire and monetary force behind many other L.A. restaurants, announced in January that he'd be opening a concept based not around mole but actual, yes, chocolate-flavored chicken, many of us treated it as a joke.
Despite all this, I wrenched my mind open to the idea. Who would argue that the Oaxacans were wrong to put chocolate in mole? Perhaps, despite Fleischman's insistence that his concoction was not mole-like in any way, he and his partners had found a way to get chocolate into the batter of fried chicken in a way that wasn't totally wrong-headed.
Apparently, the restaurant owes its existence to a Hollywood maven's craving for fried chicken with an element of chocolate. A guy named Sean Robins (producer of Scouts vs. Zombies and Into the Storm) came up with the idea, and asked his friend and "culinary personality" Keith Previte to develop a recipe. Subsequently, the two were introduced to Fleischman, who helped them hone the recipe and concept, and voilà. ChocoChicken.
Apart from the smell, the large, glassed-in restaurant at the corner of 12th Street and Grand Avenue downtown is very much like your average modern sports bar: all smooth surfaces, flatscreens and high-top seating, with a large, curved bar. The color palate is mainly brown, presumably as a nod to the namesake ingredient, and you get the same kind of casual, peppy service as you might at Umami Burger.
Slide into your seat, get yourself settled, and resist ordering a drink called the Angry Cock. It might more aptly be named the Childish Sorority Girl: a bourbon/creme de cacao/root beer milkshake-type thing with alcoholic whipped cream on top. Don't let the description, which includes egg whites and walnut bitters, fool you. This drink is as tawdry as they come. And it's not the only one. There are a lot of cocktails here with creme de cacao in them.
The narrative I've heard from other diners who braved ChocoChicken before me goes like this: Much of what's on offer — the drinks, the sides, the concept — are flawed. But the chicken itself is amazing.
I beg to differ.
The star item, the choco-chicken, comes as drumettes or fried chicken pieces. You can order a breast or a thigh, alone or as a combo with sides. The crust is dark brown and crispy and tastes like chocolate, but not in an overbearing way. If anything, it has an odd, bitter finish.
It's not terrible. In fact, on first and second bite, the oddity of eating chocolate-flavored chicken that doesn't suck is surprising enough that you're apt to miss its other flaws. And there are other flaws.
First, I question the decision to cut the meat off the bone. This is simply a rule of good fried chicken: It comes on the bone. It's juicier and more tender that way because it allows for pockets of fat and variety of texture — the extra crispy bits along the edges, the soft moisture of the flesh that sits on the interior right beside the bone, the firm bite of the meat in between. The deboned chicken at ChocoChicken isn't exactly dry, but it's missing all that.
And then there's the chocolate. It builds on itself, and not in a good way. The first three bites seem downright savory. But by the end of the meal, if you turn back to the chicken, the cloying sweetness reveals itself and you get the uneasy feeling of having consumed too many deep-fried chocolate bars at the state fair.
The most promising item on the menu might be the chicken sandwich, served on a roll with slaw and spicy peppers. The spice and fresh crunch of the cabbage help cut the chocolate of the chicken in a way that's pretty tasty.
Would that this sandwich had made it onto the menu at Umami rather than being the basis for an entire restaurant. But there is one major defect: the bun, which is chocolate-flavored. At first you wonder, "Is this a wheat bun?" — because it looks like it, but it tastes like more of that not-quite-sweet, kind of caustic powdery chocolate that's imbued in almost everything here. It ruins the sandwich.
There are nonchocolate options available as sides, but you have to be careful because many of them are dusted with cocoa or served with cocoa dusting the plate, which you then smell and it turns everything back to chocolate.
And there are mashed potatoes with white chocolate in them. Again, this is a horrible idea that surprises you, simply because it's not as bad as it should be. The potatoes are whipped and buttered into a viscous paste, and they're so rich they hit all your base instinct pleasure receptors at once. But then, there it is: You're left with a faint aftertaste of white chocolate. Why? It's the worst thing about the potatoes, the thing that takes them from luxuriant overkill to slightly offensive misstep.
The restaurant serves big, fluffy, cakelike biscuits, in one iteration with a piece of choco-chicken and slathered in very good sausage gravy (thankfully without the addition of chocolate). But watch out for the bacon biscuit, which tastes exactly like those horrid bacon air fresheners you can get for your car, and comes with sweetened butter that is basically buttercream icing.
Apart from the foolishness of much of this food, the thing that ultimately ruins a meal here is sheer overkill, the kitchen's hope that once you've gotten past the idea of chocolate chicken you might also enjoy french fries cooked in duck fat and dusted with coco powder, and a piña colada with creme de cacao dumped into it for no good reason, and mashed potatoes with an aftertaste of white chocolate.
Individually these things aren't quite as abhorrent as they could be, but lumped together into a meal, one builds on the other and the whole thing becomes as cloying and weird as the phrase "chocolate-flavored chicken" sounded in the first place.
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To make chocolate chicken work, and especially to base an entire restaurant around the idea, the real thing must be exponentially better than it sounds, because it sounds disgusting.
ChocoChicken is mainly not disgusting. But saying a restaurant isn't as bad as it sounds? That's hardly a ringing endorsement.
See also: Our photo gallery from ChocoChicken
CHOCOCHICKEN | 403 W. 12th St., dwntwn.0x000A | (213) 403-1786 | chocochicken.com | Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. | Entrees $12-$18 | Full bar | Street parking