Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 1 a.m.
This week in Dueling Dishes, a good old fashion cock fight: a battle of Armenian rotisserie hens. The first contender, of course, is Zankou, the Chowhound obsession of a few years ago, when every post on the foodie bulletin board seemed to wax poetic on the glory of its gossamer, crisp and golden brown skin.
And it wasn't just the bird, it was also about the garlic paste called toum that accompanied. The sauce actually enjoyed equal, if not greater, acclaim as the chicken it's meant to slather. Deciphering the exact formula for this intense balm was a rite of passage for a few determined Chowhounds. Some proclaimed to have replicated it with mashed potato. Others insist that the secret is good ol' fashioned lard. Whatever it was, its creamy consistency, which apes cake frosting, was just the perfect way to enjoy the intense pleasure of Gilroy's number one export.
Of course, the chicken was great. And it still is. The twirling birds are constantly being basted by the dripping juices of those that rotated above it. And since turnover at Zankou is as continual as train depot, the chicken is always hot, always fresh. The skin, of course, is the best part -- so well-rendered, it flakes off by itself in crispy sheets, as if it were trying to shed. The flavor of the skin is of chicken concentrated, but you taste the powdered spices that season the bird. It's like a salty poultry chip with slightly bitter, burnt herb finish. And the chicken itself? Well let's put it this way, pull on the leg bone and the thing slides off clean, leaving the meat behind, steaming and still fuming. Forget about the breast though, as it seems to be dry. The dark meat is the money meat here, moist, juicy, full of chicken-y flavor.
Sasoon distinguishes itself immediately by how inexplicably moist the white meat is, almost as juicy as the thigh. And the whole thing collapses when you tear at it, just like Zankou. But the skin, although mostly crispy throughtout, isn't in some hidden nooks. This may be because of the travel time it took to get my takeout order home, however. As anyone knows, you shouldn't delay in eating an Armenian rotisserie. Time is not its ally. The skin does have a pronounced saltier flavor, cleaner tasting than Zankou's, without the that bitter burnt aftertaste (which I actually find pleasant). And other than the fact that they still serve them in plastic Solo cups (Zankou now has them machine sealed with foil in a fancier containers), the toum here is virtual indistinguishable from Zankou's.
Which is the winner? Well since cock fighting is a cruel sport (and because I love both birds), I'm calling it a draw.
Zankou Chicken, 2424 W Ball Rd., Anaheim, CA 92804-5272, (714) 229-2060.
Sassoon Chicken, 3440 E Chapman Ave., Orange, CA 92869, (714) 516-9600.