As you might know, I wear my love for Longtail Kitchen on my sleeve. It’s the more casual and affordable version of Maenam (who still have an awful Flash-based website). I was less enthralled with Fat Mao, their other restaurant. But on December 1, after several months of gestation, Angus & Co. opened up Freebird Chicken Shack at River Market in New West. It’s the same mini-Granville Island market that houses Longtail Kitchen and Re-Up BBQ. With a tight, focused menu, does Freebird bring my dreams of hawker stall-style eating to the Lower Mainland?
As with all of my “First Look” posts, the usual disclaimers apply: the food and menu may change over the coming days, weeks, and months as the restaurant gets into their rhythm, receives customer feedback, etc etc etc. You know the drill. This post is about what I thought of the food that night.
They opened at noon that day and sold out a whole hour before their 6:00pm closing time.
Freebird just does chicken. Thai-style rotisserie chicken to be exact. I had visions of a Mr. Lit/SP Chicken-type Andy Ricker in Thailand kind of chicken fantasy. Having not tasted Mr. Lit’s infamous rotisserie chicken, I had to keep my expectations in check. But this tight menu is a good start. In addition to rotisserie chicken, they also do Hainanese chicken rice (or a Thai version they call khao man gai), which has occasionally been on the menu at Longtail Kitchen.
Pay special attention to the sauces listed above. That may be the key to increasing your enjoyment of the chicken.
They’re also developing a breakfast chicken congee which sounds great. You can also buy whole birds if you don’t want a combo meal.
So what sets Freebird apart from all the other poultry roasteries? They’re organic, free range, hormone/antibiotic-free, etc. One of the families that farms these birds is even named BIRD. Slam dunk!
When I got there, they were scrubbing down the rotisserie oven. I wondered if these types of ovens can develop a patina over time, just like how the best bbq smokers have layer upon layer of crud that create an incredible depth of flavour. Sorta like how frying something in fresh, clean oil just isn’t the same as using used oil that’s taken on the aromas and flavours of the stuff that’s been fried before (within reason).
Aside: I’ve always longed for a Singapore-style hawker stall environment in Vancouver. Our Asian food courts are a similar idea, but AFAIK nobody’s gone to the lengths that actual hawkers do — that is, put all of their energy and focus into perfecting ONE DISH. Like in Singapore and Malaysia, you’ll have the one stall that makes the best rendition of Hainanese chicken rice, another stall that just does oyster omelette (or luak). I hope for these types of establishments to flourish in Vancouver, but perhaps there might be some cultural and/or economic factors that prevent this from happening here.
If you know of any true one-dish establishments out there that you like, let me know in the comments! Or hit me up on Instagram! I’m always on Instagram…way too much…
Two sizes of rotisserie chicken meal combos, one size of Hainanese chicken combo, chicken-only options, and sides of chicken soup, chicken rice, and papaya salad. That’s basically the whole menu!
Countertop condiments: fried shallots…
…fish sauce with pickled chilis and (I think) garlic…
…and a chili oil.
Half Rotisserie Chicken Meal ($15) with rice, papaya salad, and choice of sauce (which I’ll explain below). I dunno if anyone can reasonably finish an entire half chicken meal! Seems like a great deal, especially for ethically-raised chicken.
Hainanese Chicken ($10) with rice and misc veg (cucumber, carrots, radish, and pickled daikon). I also got a chicken soup. The meat was moist and tender. There isn’t the Hainanese-style layer of congealed goodness underneath the tight skin, however. But even Nong’s Khao Man Gai doesn’t do the chicken that way, and it’s still delicious enough to create a mini khao man gai empire, so I’m not gonna harp on how this isn’t true Hainanese chicken rice. Just remember that it’s the Thai take on chicken rice.
I got all of this to-go and I could smell this all the way home on the Skytrain. ^_^
At home with The Sauces (clockwise from top right): Ginger & Scallion, Nam Jim Jaew (fish sauce, tamarind, chili), “Mom’s Spicy Sambal”, and Fermented Soybean & Pickled Garlic.
The nam jim jaew is a great tamarindy salty/sour sauce that they also serve at Longtail. If I had to pick one sauce, it would be this one cuz it provides enough of an accent to the chicken, and works with either the rotisserie chicken or the Hainanese chicken.
The Mom’s Spicy Sambal is crazy hot! So if you like it HOT, that’s the one for you. Justin’s mom must have a mouth lined with asbestos tiles. I tread carefully and used it mainly to mix with the classic ginger & scallion sauce.
The fermented soybean one is a touch sweet, like hoisin sauce. My second favourite sauce so far.
The only other missing sauce is their Sweet Chili sauce, which I imagine would be like the typical Thai sweet chili sauce.
Now, the slight difficulty with the sauces is that the chicken only comes with one sauce. While all of the sauces are good, they don’t quite reach the heights of say Nong’s Khao Man Gai:
At Nong’s, that one sauce is all that you need to make a delicious flavour explosion in your mouth. What I think Freebird should do is offer a set of all five sauces for maybe $1-2 and let the customer mix all five sauces to their own personal preference.
Chicken Soup ($2). Goes hand-in-hand with chicken rice. Can’t fault it, aside from maybe using a touch less salt.
The Chicken Rice that came with the half chicken meal. Might’ve been because it was the end of the day, but the rice was a bit on the dry side. The chicken flavour and fragrance was good though. Some room for improvement.
Papaya Salad that came with the half chicken meal. Same as the papaya salad served at Longtail. Picky Thai-philes will notice that the papaya shreds don’t look like they’ve been pounded (“pok pok pok pok”). They’re probably right. Does the extra step make a difference? Some say yes. I don’t really care in this situation. The seasoning and balance of flavours is good. The chili heat is mild enough so that anyone can enjoy it. Love the plentiful green beans.
The half Rotisserie Chicken before I cut it up. Fried shallots and roasted rice powder (I think) sprinkled on top.
Now this shot looks like that Body Worlds “Animal Inside Out” exhibit at Science World (TELUS World of Science). Meat looks pretty juicy, even the breast meat. You can see the “livery bits” (as Wicca likes to call them) that are located near the spine, where the legs meet the body. If you’ve ever looked at them up close, they looks like little little brains. Anyone know what they’re called?
The half chicken cut up. For $15 this is a great deal. If you can finish all of this plus the rice and salad, I salute you.
One of the parts that we never turn down: THE NECK!
Since this is Thai/Asian-style rotisserie chicken, my guess would be that they marinade the chicken with fish sauce, palm sugar, lemongrass, etc. The marinade is subtle, gently accenting the natural flavour of the chicken while not calling attention to itself. There’s a nice caramelization on the skin and a hint of a charred aroma that’s mouthwatering. The meat (even the breast) was moist and flavourful. The fat was well-rendered. In fact, if you hit up their Instagram feed, you can see a video of the rotisserie in action. Angus An also has another video (also embedded below) where you can see the fat dripping from the chickens to the chickens below it. Basting in its own juices but not getting soggy. I guess that’s the advantage of rotisserie-style cooking. Drool.
A much better launch than the Fat Mao launch. I’m looking forward to eating more chicken from this place.