After two years of stops and starts, of rising and falling COVID-19 case numbers and changing guidelines, a sense of normalcy has returned to Downtown. On a recent afternoon, the marquees at the Sunshine, KiMo and El Rey theaters promoted upcoming shows, while a couple of the art galleries on Central hosted notable exhibitions.
You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the vendors at 505 Central Food Hall, the brick-faced building that curves around the corner of Central and 5th. The hall opened in November 2020, just as cases were rising after a quiet summer. At least two of the tenants – Wild Rosemary, a healthy bowls concept, and its neighbor, a fast-casual seafood operation called Pier None – didn’t make it.
Recent changes inside the food hall reflect the more sanguine view. The wall separating Humble Coffee from the western side of the hall has been knocked out, opening up lots of light and seating options. Several people worked on laptop computers in various nooks around the place, while families and couples drifted around the space, taking in an array of dining and drinking options.
Most of the attention centered on KuKri, a spinoff of Basit Gauba’s highly successful Tikka Spice food truck. At Tikka Spice, Gauba proved to be as adept at turning out burgers and fries as he was at delivering Indian and Pakistani specialties like samosa chaat and curry. His brick-and-mortar start-up is built around the truck’s popular spicy, fried chicken tenders. They appear in sandwiches and smothered in spicy sauces over fries. KuKri apparently is a word for chicken in Punjabi.
KuKri is pretty easy to find inside 505 Central: Just look for a hellish color scheme befitting a place that serves up hot chicken. A painting of a cartoon chicken walking a tightrope over rising flames dominates one wall.
Two people staffed the operation while I was there. A counterperson took orders and passed them on to a cook in a small room off the counter. Numerous order slips hung from the shelf in front of him. Next to the wall-mounted menu, a sign indicated that the place is hiring and paying $16 an hour. No wonder the servers seemed so enthusiastic.
After you order, you’re given a pager that beeps when your food is ready. My order took a little more than five minutes to come out, enough time to explore the place, make mental notes of where to try next.
KuKri’s menu is divided up into appetizers and four entrees called the Mains.
Most of the food is of the heavy, stick-to-your-ribs variety, like an appetizer of Cheese Curds with Green Chile Ranch ($7). The closest thing to a salad is a Slaw ($2) of cabbage, carrots, jicama, celery, peppers and onions served piled to overflowing in a small cup. The fresh, shredded veggies were dressed in a honey mustard vinaigrette that barely registered.
An appetizer of the House Mac and Cheese ($6) is the kind of nod to American diner food that Gauba offers at his food truck. Long corkscrews of cavatappi pasta clung to a sauce that was more cheesy than creamy, with just a slight sting on the tongue from the green chile.
Headlining the entrees is the signature KuKri Sandwich ($12.50) comprised of two fat tenders breaded and fried to a dark brown and served on a brioche bun. The chicken was moist, the thick, crackling coating clung to it and the bun held up well. It’s a great sandwich, with the pickles, slaw and tikka sauce adding heat and crunch.
Equally good was an order of Tikka Fries ($13.50), the fries serving as the base for a colorful pile of cut-up chicken, sauces, veggies and cilantro. The fries around the edge of the pile stayed crisp, while the ones underneath softened to the texture of a baked potato as they absorbed the garlicky, blazing medley of sauces.
Deciding among the four entrees is complicated by the five different heat levels offered, from mild to insanely hot. I chose medium and found the designation accurate. It was spicy enough to make the nose run, but not so much as to obscure the other flavors.
The menu also features tandoori chicken wings and two brunch specials: chicken and waffles, and honey butter biscuits.
Drinks offer a counterweight to all the spicy food. KuKri sells several varieties of bottled lassi ($8), the cooling yogurt drink. There were three different lemonades. The mango and coconut lemonade ($5), served in a plastic cup about the size of my arm, was suitably tropical.
The chicken is halal, which means it is prepared according to Islamic law. Other than the slaw, there’s nothing on the menu for gluten-free and vegan diners.
There is no free parking available, but metered spaces are generally easy to find on the stretch of Fifth Street north of Central. It costs a buck for one hour.
KuKri has only been open a couple of months, but already it appears to be attracting a steady flow of customers. It’s likely to help the 505 Central Food Hall finally realize its potential.