Zuni Cafe Chicken

The roast chicken at Zuni Café in San Francisco is best in class. Take my word for it—it is unsurpassed. My extended family and I have a finely tuned strategy in place when it comes to dining there, and rule number one is: get there early. The whole chickens are roasted to order in the restaurant’s wood burning oven, and they take about an hour to prepare. Rule number two: order the chicken as soon as you sit down.

Once this important task is taken care of, we can relax and enjoy ourselves over a glass of champagne and some briny oysters, or cocktails and other tidbits, while we await the main event. This is prime time for catching up with one another, re-airing old jokes, and chatting with the wait staff about wine and other matters. During one memorable dinner at Zuni, we explained to our appealing young server that we’re always tempted by other items on the menu, but cannot resist the chicken, its siren call so seductive that we have never tried anything else. “Oh my gosh, I know,” he confided. “The chicken here is the absolute best.”

Then he focused on me for a moment and “the look” came over him—I knew exactly what he was going to say next: “You’re half-Asian, aren’t you?” Bingo. “Japanese?” I nodded. Of course, he was hapa too. We half-Asians can spot each other from across a crowded room. “What about you?” I asked. “Half Chinese,” he replied. “Last name’s Wong,” he added, as he turned to tend to another table.

We resumed our nibbling and studied the wine list, our anticipation building toward that triumphant moment when the platters of juicy, crispy, wood-smoked chicken would appear, alongside a golden haystack of shoestring potatoes. Have I mentioned the panzanella? The succulent, burnished chicken always arrives atop a mustard green, currant, pine nut and grilled bread salad, the poultry juices dripping down to mingle with the vinegary dressing. If your Thanksgiving stuffing had a love child with a Tuscan salad, this is what you’d get.

We waved our server over to order a bottle of pinot noir, and he approached us with a sly smile on his face. Picking up the story where he’d left off, he told us about his Caucasian mother. “Her maiden name is Wright,” he reported, as he leaned in for the punch line: “So I may be Wright, but I’m always Wong.”

This happened maybe three or four years ago, but I still remember our waiter with the pushmepullyou of names. He did, at long last, arrive at our table bearing a show-stopping platter of the world’s best chicken. Don’t question me on this—it’s undisputed. Mr. Wright-Wong knows what he’s talking about.

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