Along with cling-clanging cable cars, a certain Tony Bennett ballad, and tourists freezing in July thanks to Karl's foggy wrath, Zuni Café's roast chicken is an icon of San Francisco.
Food writers, Yelpers, and bloggers tend to be promiscuous in bandying about such words as essential and life-changing; but when it comes to the Zuni chicken, this particular legendary dish fits the bill—and is always worth the hour-long wait.
You could take it one step farther and contend (without much debate) that Zuni Cafe is singularly emblematic of SF dining—in just the same way that Chez Panisse is synonymous with California cuisine; its employment of local, seasonal ingredients, the rustic wood-fired brick oven, bustling bar area, slight Mediterranean vibe, wide-ranging clientele, and prime location on the city's main thoroughfare have made Zuni the gold standard for restaurants here since the late chef Judy Rodgers joined as partner in 1987. And the roast chicken? Zuni's surprising signature.
Why surprising? We're talking about roast chicken here. Roast chicken! It's usually the most boring item on a restaurant's menu—the one reserved for diners who order plain vanilla ice cream at dessert. But thanks to Chef Rodgers, no San Franciscan will ever think about roast chicken the same way again. She created a recipe that changed how foodies think of roast chicken—and one that is now the grand-mère to a host of modern riffs at some of the city's most popular eateries.
The famous Zuni Café roast chicken.(Trevor Felch)
There are just four ingredients required for making Zuni chicken magic (well, five if you count water): fresh sprigs of herbs (marjoram, thyme, rosemary, or sage), sea salt, ground black pepper, and the bird itself. That's all for the brine, which begins one or more days ahead of serving time. The rest is all about the brick oven, timing, and high heat that creates the brilliantly crispy, sweet-and-nutty-tasting (think aged Madeira and you'll recognize it) skin that is the Zuni chicken's hallmark. In three chicken-focused visits over the past two years, I've found the breast pieces to be slightly dry (so many chicken dishes are), but each serving has also come with perfectly moist wings and thighs with that signature texture-flavor combination of the skin.
Anyone who has enjoyed the roast chicken here knows that the accompanying chicken juice- and olive oil vinaigrette-saturated bread salad—specked with dried currants, pine nuts, scallions, and mustard greens—is what really lifts the poultry onto a whole new plane from its peers. The duo just plain works, and Zuni gets even more bonus points for the visually beautiful presentation of a large platter with the salad in the center, seemingly spilling out over the chicken pieces like dry ice mysteriously cloaking the star attraction. The smokiness, the crunch, the tangy vinaigrette, the blast of fragrant herbs from the chicken skin—it's just a glorious experience, and one perfect for group celebrations. That's right—this chicken is a party.
No matter how many restaurants have clucked forward with their own roast chickens in recent years, none can replicate the experience at Zuni. But there's one giving it a run for its money in popularity, and that's RT Rotisserie, Evan and Sarah Rich's sophomore venture located just three blocks away from the venerable cafe.
RT Rotisserie's roast chicken and sides.(Kassie Borreson)
Think of how a dynamic herb rub can transform pork loin and pork belly into a beautifully fragrant porchetta and you'll have an idea of how RT Rotisserie is getting it done. Like Zuni's, RT's chicken is brined, but the 24-hour brine is buttermilk-based and then spiked with dried porcini mushroom umami powder, garlic, and Douglas fir. Typical? Hardly. Then the brined chicken is hung to dry out for two days allowing the brine's flavor to really concentrate in the meat and help the skin have a healthier crisp when it takes its spin in the rotisserie. The chicken is roasted first, followed by a little time in the broiler before serving so that each piece gets that coveted, crispy Zuni-like skin. Here is the difference between a rotisserie and a brick oven: the latter does all the work for you.
RT Rotisserie wraps up the preparation with a lemon wedge garnish, some fried garlic, and a fresh herb sprinkling that tends to be heavy on dill and mint. It's not exactly the Zuni bread salad in terms of excitement, but it does accomplish a similar feat of brightening up an otherwise homey dish. For the record, the Zuni chicken will set you back $63 (for two people) and a full hour of wait time; fast-casual RT Rotisserie spins out $10 half chickens and $19 whole chickens with dipping sauces (you can also order in sandwich form) in a matter of minutes.
So does the classic or the newcomer win? When it comes to value and even consistency, the young RT Rotisserie take the trophy. But when Zuni is on its game, and we have a bite of that bread salad with a perfectly moist chicken thigh (and maybe a martini), there is nowhere else we'd rather be in San Francisco.