In Search of the Perfect Chicken on the LES

Luis Meat Market, Essex Street Market.
Luis Meat Market, Essex Street Market. Photos by Cynthia Lamb.

Our neighborhood has traditionally been the home of immigrants, and continues to be so today.  I was surprised when a few friends, people who were raised outside of this country, expressed a dislike for chicken, America’s most popular menu item. It struck me as strange to hear repeatedly that the our chicken has a “weird” texture and flavor compared to the chicken they grew up eating. I’ve traveled quite a bit, and noticed that the chicken in some places seemed more delicious, but I’d chalked that up to the excitement of eating in a foreign country. Perhaps it was time to rethink chicken at home? I’d gotten away from eating it often, because I found other options more interesting.

A trip to the supermarket was my starting point. There were chickens for sale. Chickens with enormous breasts and stubby little legs. They did have an odd grayness about them. When roasted, their flavor and texture seemed to miss the mark of my childhood memories, but was I kidding myself? Or did it explain why I’d lost the taste for chicken for much of my adult life? The combination of texture, flavor and ethical qualms about how the birds might have been raised was enough to start me looking around to see if I could do better, hopefully in the neighborhood.

I knew I could run up to the Union Square Greenmarket and get a free-range, heritage breed bird from a small local farm for about $20, but that’s a little rich for my blood. I’ve had some successes in my career, but I’m still a working musician; that’s a little beyond my reach for day-to-day eating. Maybe for special occasions.

So off to Whole Foods, right? Easy solution: they have free-range organic birds, and their website has wonderful copy explaining how much they care about both food quality and responsible practices. Many neighbors shop there and seem satisfied. I don’t, but figured I’d check them out. They had chickens that looked like supermarket birds for $8 each. Then they had the organic free-range versions of those birds for $13-$20. The best looking chickens, without distorted huge breasts, organic and free-range from a farm in Pennsylvania were all $20 or more. I walked out birdless, and confused by their animal cruelty grading system.

Readers may remember a couple weeks ago I recommended Fairtown Trading as a source for chicken breasts. I said they cost only a little more than supermarket chicken, yet looked and tasted much better. The same is true of their packs of leg and thigh meat, expertly de-boned by their in-house butchers. I have yet to ascertain the provenance of this chicken, due to the language barrier between me and the good folks who work there, but I can vouch for the chicken in terms of taste and texture. I understand that might not be enough for some readers, so I can go one better.

Cheong Hing Meat Market, 19 Catherine Street.

I have a chicken solution I’m happy with in terms of taste, texture, price and provenance, and unsurprisingly it’s an immigrant success story: Bo Bo Poultry. Some may remember their retail shop on Broome Street, where they sold live chickens and rabbits, but they got out of the retail business years ago. Today they’re a wholesaler with their own network of local farms (all within 200 miles of the city). It’s a family business selling heritage breed (Barred Silver Cross) chickens with a different shape and flavor than supermarket birds. They are free-roaming, slow raised birds. They’re not certified organic, but they’re not raised with antibiotics or hormones. All that, along with the deliciousness of the chickens, is good enough for me.

Last year my wife, Cynthia, called Bo Bo Poultry to find out more. She spoke to Anita, the daughter of one of the founders. The company was started in 1985 to provide chickens to Chinese restaurants. It seems they were dissatisfied with commercial American chicken, and Bo Bo filled a need. Later they were licensed to sell retail, but today they’re a wholesale business supplying restaurants and markets. Turnover in Chinatown is so high they make several delivery runs a week, assuring the freshness of the birds.

Anita mentioned Cheong Hing Meats and Seafood (19 Catherine Street) as one of the places in the neighborhood with the highest turnover . Here’s the drill: Walk in, ask for Bo Bo chicken, the nice people behind the counter will guide you to a corner of a cooler filled with bags of whole chickens. Look for the yellow metal wing tag just to make sure you grabbed the right bag. Bring it to the counter and expect to pay about $10 a chicken.

If you live further east and find the trek to Catherine Street too much, don’t despair. Bo Bo chickens are also available at Luis Meat Market in the Essex Street Market. A chicken there was just over $10, and the butcher offered to cut it up any way I liked. They seemed proud to offer these chickens, and I was happy to find them there.

(Bo Bo chickens are processed Buddhist Style, with the head and feet intact, so you’ll need to break out your cleaver before you start cooking. If you’re squeamish buy from Luis Meats; they’ll happily chop off the head and feet for you. Save the feet – they’re excellent for stock!)

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.