Thursday, December 17, 2009

Duel of the Garlic Chickens

The folks down South may claim fried chicken as a cornerstone of Southern cuisine, but in Hawaii we've got many more variations on fried chicken due to our Asian influence.   You've got chicken katsu, of course.   You've got chicken karaage.   You've got mochiko chicken, battered with mochi flour so that it's much chewier and stick to your teeth than the regular crispy batter.  You've got the classic Chinese lemon chicken, which is glazed in sweet, sticky, lemon sauce after it's been fried (and more recently that abomination, orange chicken).   You've got spicy Korean chicken, which is glazed in Korean spices afterwards.   But perhaps one of my favorite ones, is our local garlic chicken.

When it comes to garlic chicken, there are really only 2 names in town, Mitsu-ken and Sugoi.   If you ever travel to Philadelphia, and you want a really authentic philly cheese steak sandwich, you're likely to get caught in the rivalry between Pat's and Geno's. The two venues are right across from one another, and there is an intense and heated feud between them.  Each side commands legions of loyal followers who are strictly devoted to one side or the other.   Here in Hawaii, Mitsu-ken and Sugoi really don't have such a public rivalry, but the garlic chicken world is definitively split between them.

Mitsu-ken is the older of the two shops, and a very classic little hole in the wall okazu-ya.  It's right down the road from Kamehameha Shopping Center on School Street, near Gulick Ave.   If you were driving past, you'd probably miss it, except for the very long lines of faithful patrons running out the door and down the block all morning long.  Not being someone who hangs around Kalihi a lot, I first found out about the place watching Bruddah Sam and Lina Girl attacking practically everything on their menu.  Long before Bourdain or Zimmern, Local Kine Grindz was the show that would make my mouth water, and when Bruddah Sam held up 3 plates, a garlic chicken combo with roast beef, a garlic chicken combo with roast pork, and a garlic chicken combo with more garlic chicken, I figured that the garlic chicken must be good there.   Naturally, Bruddah Sam was right.  From the moment that I first tasted their garlic chicken, I was instantly addicted.

Garlic Chicken Mixed Plate from Mitsu-Ken
The garlic chicken at Mitsu-ken's has a very light crispy batter.   It's kind of like the crunch of cereal after a few moments in milk (but way before it gets to be soggy).  The bath in garlic sauce has the same effect on the fried chicken.   It's not soggy in any sense, but it's more crispy than crunchy.  Since the sauce glazes the chicken, it's much more absorbed into the chicken than if you were just dipping fried chicken into a garlic sauce dip.  It's got perfectlly balanced sweet, garlicy flavor.   It's not too strong so that it's overpowering, nor is it too subtle that you don't know you're eating garlic chicken.  It's just the right amount of sweet and garlicy that you just keep wanting to eat more of it.   You can get it in combination with any of their other goodies, or if you're like me and want some of everything, you probably want either the garlic chicken bento or the garlic chicken mixed plate.

The big disadvantage to Mitsu-ken's, is there really isn't any parking anywhere around except for 2-3 stalls right in front.   If you can't get one of those, your best bet is to drop off a passenger (like my wife for example) to stand in line while you circle around the block.  Since Mitsu-Ken has only 2 tables as well, we usually then head further down School Street and have lunch at Lanakila Park.  This gave me a great idea to have a little party, when my company, Opihi Net, celebrated the successful completion of its first year in business.  We bought a ton of food from Mitsu-Ken, and invited all of my clients to Ala Moana Beach Park for a little picnic.  For those clients that couldn't make it, I packed up boxes of garlic chicken to be delivered to their offices.  It was a rousing success, and sharing the awesomeness of this secret little hole in the wall with the awesome garlic chicken, was a great way to show my appreciation.

Sugoi is the newer of the two shops, located in City Square, by the DMV (where the old Gem's used to be).   Their name is an interjection in Japanese meaning "cool!" or "incredible!".   That pretty much accurately describes their food.  They've got a fantastic ahi loco moco, some really great yakisoba, and a terrific saba bento.  But what they've been seriously building a reputation on is their garlic chicken.   They have even been selling bottles of their garlic chicken sauce in retail, and I've even seen it on the shelf at Longs.   Sugoi also has a garlic chicken bento, similar to Mitsu-Ken's, but for health nuts like my sister, theirs comes can be substituted with brown rice.   All of which is making their garlic chicken more appealing to a broader audience.

Garlic Chicken Bento from Sugoi
Sugoi's garlic chicken is a but crunchier than Mitsu-ken's.   I'm not sure if it is that their batter is thicker, or if they don't soak it as much as Mitsu-ken, but their chicken definitely has a more substantial crunch to it.   The garlic in their sauce is also a bit sharper.   When garlic is raw, it has an almost spicy bite to it, that completely disappears after it has been cooked long enough.  Somehow the garlic sauce at Sugoi retains more of this sharpness, than the sauce at Mitsu-ken.  In general, the sauce at Sugoi's has an all around more intense flavor than the one at Mitsu-ken.   It's sweeter, sharper, crunchier, and just overall much stronger.   It's easy to see why it is gaining popularity so quickly.   Besides that, the ample parking at City Square and the two rooms full of seating area, make Sugoi much more accessible than Mitsu-ken.

Mini Garlic Chicken from Sugoi
Both Sugoi and Mitsuken have ridiculously delicious garlic chicken.   However, my own personal preference remains with the old school flavor at Mitsu-ken.   I love garlic.  I'm usually very liberal with the garlic in a lot of my cooking, and I know what a difficult job it is to find that perfect moment when the garlic is nicely browned.   Too raw, and it will have that pungent sharp bite to it.   To burned and the delicate flavor will be ruined with char.  But when it is perfectly browned, there is no sharpness to it, just a fragrant, lingering, smooth garlic flavor.  To me, that is the perfect balance found at Mitsu-ken.    Although the flavors are much more intense at Sugoi, I just like Mitsu-ken's a little more.  The more subtle, more delicate flavors at Mitsu-ken just keep you wanting to eat more and more, while the stronger flavors at Sugoi kind of bludgeon you over the head and knock you out for the count.  

Both Mitsu-ken and Sugoi have made an indelible mark on our culinary heritage with their fantastic garlic chicken.   Like the cheesesteak in Philadelphia, I hope both their garlic chickens will be celebrated, and enjoyed for generations to come.

1 comment:

  1. Very good comparison. I still haven't decided which is the best garlic chicken, so I guess I'll just have to keep eating! :)