“Customers don’t know why, but they love the food,” says Abel Uribe. “They’re addicted to the garlic and the chicken.”
Uribe is the manager of Zankou Chicken’s store in Pasadena, the company’s largest and one of its busiest. It’s where a variety of Zankou’s choicest dishes are prepared every day and transported to other stores in Los Angeles county.
The word “chicken” is of course written into Zankou’s brand name. You could call it the company’s soul. What would Zankou be without “chicken?” Not much. Perhaps nothing. Can you imagine “Zankou Hummus” or “Zankou Falafel” having even a fraction of the allure that “Zankou Chicken” proudly boasts?
Any examination of the age-old fowl that gives Zankou its zing must begin with a brief history of the chicken and the lore that surrounds this noble bird. Chickens belong to the “Gallus domesticus” subspecies of the “Phasianidae” family of the animal kingdom, which includes pheasants, partridges and jungle fowl. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the first domesticated chickens in the world came from the Indian Subcontinent. The birds were developed not for meat or eggs but for a popular activity that is outlawed in America—cockfighting.
It is said that in certain ancient cultures, especially among primitive tribes, the consumption of chicken or eggs was taboo. This was evidently true not just in ancient Athens but also among the Romans. With time, better sense dawned on both civilizations—and the chicken became an integral part of Greek and Italian cuisine.
Chicken meat is famously lean and packed with protein. Too often, however, chicken tastes like carpeting—although you wouldn’t suspect that at all from the way that Americans typically consume poultry. Walk into a Costco, especially during the holiday season, and you can see people fighting over the last few rotisserie chickens just before the store’s closing time. If an ancient Greek or Roman were to travel in a time machine to Costco, he would not hesitate to conclude that customers of the discount store’s god-awful chicken are going straight to hell.
“Not everyone knows a good car or a superior mobile phone,” Uribe explains, making an analogy between the average shopper who thinks the world of Costco’s $5 chicken but has no idea what high-quality chicken tastes like—because too many consumers in America have been brainwashed into believing that “cheaper is better. Often Costco uses their low cost chicken as a “loss leader”, a pricing strategy in which a retailer will price a much desired product at an extremely low cost to appease shoppers into coming in and spending more money on other, more profitable items. It’s called “loss leader” because retailers are often willing to price these items so low that they make little to no profit, even at the point of making a negative income on that item, to bring people in the door. This strategy was utilized by Barnes and Noble and other book stores during the launch of the Harry Potter books years ago. Costco, Barnes and Noble, Walmart and other were pricing Harry Potter book titles at cost or below cost during the launch parties, just to get those kids and their families through the door. It’s a long-term strategy that pays off. We will discuss this further in the price strategy chapter.
If Uribe had his way, he would want everyone who eats chicken in America—indeed the world—to try Zankou’s famous preparation of Gallus domesticus just once. That, says the store manager, is all it takes to get hooked on chicken a la Zankou.
Over the years, poultry lovers have speculated ad nauseam that we apply a special marinate of spices to give our rotisserie chicken its outstanding taste. The truth is we do nothing of that sort at Zankou. And while Zankou always uses top-of-the-line ingredients in its cooking, nothing magical is added to the chicken other than common salt.
That’s right—a bit of salt, not even any pepper, is rubbed into the chicken before it’s put on the rotisserie. No oil is applied to the outside of the chicken—nothing whatsoever is injected inside. How, then, a curious customer may well wonder, does the chicken taste so darned good.
The answer lies in technique. Every single chicken at Zankou is cooked slowly and deliberately. First, the chickens are placed on the rotisserie—three or four birds to every row that automatically revolves like the axel of a car in a furnace-like setting. As red-hot flames touch the outer surface of the revolving chicken, the meat oozes a juicy liquid.
The chickens are placed symmetrically on the rotisserie in such a manner that the liquid from the top-most row of chickens falls directly onto the chickens in the second row—and the juice from the second row of birds falls onto the third row. And so on. The order of the rows is then reversed: The chickens in the upper rung, whose juices have been falling on the birds below, get to go lower down so that they, too, can have the juices of other birds drop on them. The entire process takes about two hours.
The juice is what gives the chicken its crispy skin and characteristic flavor. Voilà!