Like many emerging food destinations, Vancouver has a walk-before-you-run approach to opening restaurants. It’s why we had so many places trumpeting their fried chicken and waffles before we ever had a legitimate fried chicken restaurant. It’s also why so many of those spots use boneless white meat (aka chicken fingers) in said dishes, a lapse of judgment on par with marrying a Yankee south of the Mason–Dixon line.
But riding in to right our historical wrongs is Juke, the much-anticipated, much-delayed Chinatown spot that aims to be our fried chicken saviour. The restaurant’s starting lineup is promising enough: former Chambar G.M. Justin Tisdall is a well-loved presence out front, former Hawksworth sous chef Bryan Satterford is overqualified in the back and Meat and Bread co-owner Cord Jarvie is a backer. The 48-seat room, designed by Ply Architecture, is a gorgeous blend of low (cinder blocks, polished concrete) topped with natural wood, and the branding by Glasfurd and Walker is even sexier—I actually saw several people stop and gaze into the garbage bin to ogle my beautifully designed take-out container.
All of which means squat if the fried chicken restaurant doesn’t nail fried chicken, which, for the most part, it does. It’s gluten free, which poses a serious red flag until the explanation comes that it has nothing to do with health and everything to do with texture. The result is an exceptionally crunchy skin that will be a pleasant shock to anyone raised on the steam bath that is KFC takeout, and also does a bang-up job of sealing in the Rossdown Farm chicken’s juiciness. It’s a hair underseasoned—and I’d love to see a Nashville-style spicy version in the future—but nothing that can’t be easily remedied with the accompanying house-made sauces (and maybe that’s the idea). But the best thing may be the price: in a city that takes great plebeian movements like food trucks and then delivers them to us at patrician prices, Tisdall and friends deliver two pieces of chicken for $6.50 (and an amazing $5.50 for takeout), five for $14 (easily enough to feed three) and 10 for $26, and it comes with a crunchy acidic slaw that cuts through the chicken’s richness. Other elements don’t quite live up to the chicken’s heights: the biscuits have a slightly flat texture that’s saved by huge portion of the rarely seen but welcome schmaltz (rendered chicken fat, if you must know what’s in everything), but three of them for $6 is a tad pricey. And while dirty fries (gravy, cheese sauce, chervil) are fantastic, they should be at a princely $9. But then you have the $5 crispy chicken sandwich (two for $9) at the takeout window, the $11 saison and a hefty shot of artisanal mezcal combo and you feel the love all over again.
The menu is still coming together—the fried whole fish for two wasn’t yet available and here’s hoping that it never does materialize: don’t enable a couple who goes to a fried chicken spot and orders the fish. The wine list likewise was still arriving, but we love the completely disproportionate emphasis on sparkling wine, which will pair like a dream with the chicken. No plans yet on whether they’re working on a chicken and waffles dish, but if they want it, they’ve earned it.