Two things are required any time someone reviews a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurant that offers rotisserie chicken. First, there must be a comparison to Zankou Chicken’s bird as the benchmark. This is followed by maybe a paragraph or two about the garlic paste that goes with it.
This review will be no exception, so let’s get it out of the way: Yes, Chicken Maison’s rotisserie is similar to Zankou’s. Both spend time twirling in a see-through oven until the skins tan to a radiant golden brown that’s only a shade darker than George Hamilton. Heat-squeezed of its fat—which has basted the meat beneath—the spice-rubbed chicken’s skin shrinks to a gossamer thinness. And the pallid-white garlic paste called toum? Both restaurants give you plenty of it to apply like balm across any surface made of hen or pita bread. Chicken Maison’s similarities to Zankou end here.
Though the skin on Chicken Maison’s bird isn’t as crisp or intensely flavorful as Zankou’s, the meat is moister, which is good because Zankou seems to sacrifice its chicken’s juiciness (especially around the breast area) in service to getting that skin just so.
Now on to the garlic paste. Zankou’s toum is so powerful it can double as smelling salts. Chicken Maison’s is a kinder, gentler kind of paste. You can almost spoon it up and eat it like mashed potatoes. I’m not sure you even need it if you order the bird pre-drenched in the lemon-garlic or lemon-basil sauce blend, which are two options Zankou doesn’t offer.
It’s at this point that the Armenian Zankou and the Lebanese Chicken Maison diverge even further. The latter was founded in 2005 in Torrance by Mario Karame. It has grown to two other branches, all managed by family, including the newest at a barren L-shaped mini-mall anchored by a Target where Costa Mesa ends and Santa Ana begins. But while Zankou keeps it simple with no more than a few permutations of its core protein as dishes, Chicken Maison’s menu strives to be more ambitious.
First, there’s the stuff you expect: Gyro meat from a spinning spit is shaved into deeply spiced, crispy petals featured on a plate or in a sandwich. Dense and craggle-crusted falafels are either stuffed with tabbouleh into pitas or plain as a main dish.
Then there’s the stuff you’ve never thought of seeing: A massive plate of chicken pesto fettuccine—which can feed a family of four with leftovers for the dog—has noodles that are slightly overcooked and bloated, but it’s redeemed by a zesty pesto and sun-dried tomatoes.
But the item that will prove my point that Chicken Maison is capable of doing anything it bloody well wants? The Chinese chicken salad. Save for the too-bitter red cabbage, this is the best bastardization of a bastard dish you’ll find anywhere. Containing all the prerequisites (Mandarin-orange wedges, strips of chicken, torn romaine lettuce, sesame seeds), it’s tossed in a dressing perfectly formulated to be tart-sweet but never insipid. And when the flavor gets picked up by the delicate Persian cucumbers or soaked up into the fried pita chips used as croutons, you forget why you ever scorned other versions.
As good as it is, though, it’s really just a primer for what I consider Chicken Maison’s true purpose: the kebabs. These are enormous things, gilded in char. No kebab specimen is more glorious or generously portioned than the kafta. Order one for lunch, and you’ll need nothing else for the rest of the day. Aggressively seasoned and made aromatic with diced onion, spices and mint, this molded meat cylinder has the thickness of a boa constrictor and the length of a submarine sandwich—easily five burgers’ worth of crumbly, juice-dripping ground beef.
Lamb, beef steak and chicken also get the kebab treatment. You’ll find each bamboo-skewered morsel too large to put your mouth around; knife and fork are required. All are fire-licked and smoke-seeped, but the lamb kebab becomes nothing short of extraordinary when eaten with a simple buttered baked potato and a char-flecked grilled veggie kebab—in which a mushroom, onion, tomato, zucchini and bell pepper get impaled on a stick.
And, of course, there’s hummus, and it is good, topped with diced tomatoes and parsley. I recommend choosing it to occupy spot No. 1 for your first combo side dish. The second spot? Well, there are too many to list here. I like the house potato salad. It eschews mayo for vinegar (or is it lemon?) as dressing. Pick it over the rice, even if it has raisins it.
For dessert? Brownies. Yes, Chicken Maison has wonderful brownies—not-too-sweet, chewy, cocoa-y blocks wrapped in cellophane and hearty enough for two. It’s more proof that the place does soup to nuts. Oh, I didn’t mention the soup? There’s soup.
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Chicken Maison, 3332 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 434-0244; www.chickenmaison.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Meals, $5-$10.
This review appeared in print as "Flying the Coop: Chicken Maison’s menu goes way beyond the titular bird."