Hot chicken is all the rage.
Nashville hot chicken shacks have opened all over the country, including one in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights called Chile Chicken. Chicken wing sauces promising unbearable levels of pain line the shelves of specialty food stores. Hot Ones, a talk show in which celebrities answer questions while sampling progressively spicier chicken wings, is one of the most popular shows on YouTube.
Local chef Tony Chaleunphonh brings a novel twist to the hot chicken trend by integrating the fragrance and fire of his native Laos into the dishes at Happy Chickenzz, his 2-year-old restaurant at El Vado Motel near Old Town.
Happy Chickenzz is a spinoff of Chaleunphonh’s Saep Fire food truck, where the chicken is marinated in garlic and lemon grass and the short ribs come with papaya salad. The chef drew inspiration for his brick-and-mortar base from the unassuming chicken shacks that he and his wife, Dorean, would visit during their travels around the country. The name comes not from the chickens, who can’t possibly be happy about their fate, but from the idea of deriving pleasure from trying something new.
Happy Chickenzz sits on the south side of El Vado Motel, the restored motor court on a bend on Central across the street from the ABQ BioPark. Despite being only steps away from a busy stretch of road, El Vado feels secluded and tranquil. The immaculate redo, featuring bone-white stucco walls with cobalt-blue trim, looks like something you’d see hanging on a hillside in Myokonos. On a recent Saturday evening, water misters and the spray from a fountain took some of the edge off the heat from a sinking sun that had drawn a bead on the 25 or so diners on the patio.
Like it neighbor Buen Provecho, Happy Chickenzz serves out of a refurbished motel room with no seating inside. Watching Chaleunphonh work the grill and fryer in the back of the cramped space, it struck me that his years of work on the food truck must have prepared him well for this setting.
The menu offers a mere six entrees and a daily special, along with a handful of snacks and shareables like chicken strips, pot stickers and egg rolls. You order at the counter, take a number and wait on the patio. I was told it would be 15 minutes, but the food came out in 10.
Two sandwiches made from chicken breasts brined in buttermilk, battered and fried highlight the menu. The El Vado ($8.99) combines the chicken with sriracha aioli, while the Diablo Sandwich ($9.99) is topped with Cluckin’ Hot Sauce, a variation of jeow som, the Laotian sour hot sauce made with lime, chilies and fish sauce. Chaleunphonh cuts back on the fish sauce for a less pungent, spicier taste. The sandwich is substantial and terrific – the only off note came when the bottom half of the bun, coated with a slaw of greens in chipotle aioli, fell apart as I tried to eat it at home. The thick-cut fries picked up a little zing from a dusting of cayenne pepper, but they weren’t particularly crisp.
Fried chicken wings come in small ($8), medium ($15.50) and large ($21.50). I ordered the small and got four wingtips and three drumettes over a bed of hot sauce. The heat was even more evident here than it was on the sandwich. It sets your lips on fire, makes your nose run and lingers long after you’ve finished. If you’re not up for such a high level of heat, there are other sauce options, such as garlic soy and Cajun dry rub. The wings have only a modest amount of meat on them, so a small order registers more as an appetizer than an entrée.
The special that day was three fried spring rolls ($6.99) cut in half diagonally and served on a bed of lettuce with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. At first bite, the filling of shrimp, pork, vegetables and glass noodles was unpleasantly spongy, but the texture ended up being ideal for soaking up the sweet and sour dipping sauce.
On the lighter side, Happy Chickenzz offers Aden’s Grilled Bowl ($9.99), an item also available on the Saep Fire food truck. Grilled chicken is marinated in garlic lemon-grass sauce and served cubed over steamed rice with a lettuce salad. It’s quite similar to the average teriyaki bowl, with a discreet citrus and minty flavor from the lemon grass.
Vegetarians can swap chicken for tofu on some of the dishes, and diners in search of fewer calories and fat can opt for grilled chicken on the sandwiches.
By bringing the flavors of Laos to fried chicken, Tony Chaleunphonh has created another compelling reason to visit El Vado Motel.