Image of Zuni Cafe roast chicken adobo, with crisp rice salad

Zuni Café Roast Chicken Adobo

Few dishes fill a room like a roast chicken. It’s an ultimate comfort — a homestyle dinner that conjures a sense of warmth, togetherness, family. It’s crisp fall afternoons raking leaves in the yard. It’s a fuzzy sweater in a well-worn armchair. It’s Hannah and Her Sisters or an early Belle and Sebastian record.

It also sucks butts nine times out of ten.

Seriously, how many dry, flavourless chickens have you suffered through? Breast meat hammered so bad, it’s basically straw. Or, the alternative — a greasy, flabby bird wagging unrendered fat beneath its pale, clammy skin. There’s not enough gravy in the world to cover up these disasters.

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If only most chickens were this joyous.

But when it’s done right, a roast chicken is a thing of marvel. There’s a reason one of the most storied restaurant dishes in American history is the chicken for two from the Zuni Café. It’s nothing outrageous. It’s just a simple dish, done with a careful eye toward detail and balance.

There’s another chicken dish known to spawn moans of satisfaction too (and one that doesn’t cost $58 a pop at a San Francisco hot spot): Adobo. As Mark Bittman puts it, “This Philippine classic has been called the best chicken dish in the world by a number of my friends and readers.”

It’s hard to argue with him. I’ve served chicken adobo to the pickiest of picky eaters and they chomped it down like rabid badgers.

Cartoon of a rabid badger.

It’s a fairly close approximation, actually.

This soulful Southeast Asian dish pleases just about anyone with its deep, rich flavour of soy, vinegar, and garlic. Normally, it’s cooked twice: first, poached in a punchy brine, then grilled quickly over high heat for crispy, brown skin. It’s easy to prepare, using only a few cheap ingredients and simple techniques.

Still, sometimes you want the presentation, the texture, and the house-filling aroma of roast chicken. So, what if you take the best of both worlds? What if you steal the next-level flavours of a Filipino classic and layer them with the precision of the Zuni Café?

You get a roast chicken dish I’ll put up against any other, any day.

Zuni Roast Chicken Adobo takes time, attention, and a couple of weird ingredients, but it’s oh so worth it. While the flavours of adobo are easy to come by (who doesn’t have garlic and soy sauce lying around?), the preparation needed to get them into a Zuni-style roast chicken takes some tinkering and a couple of smart kitchen hacks.

The big trick with Zuni chicken is dry-brining. Many cooks are familiar with the concept of dunking their meat in a flavourful liquid for a couple of days to season the inside as well as the outside. Dry-brining does the same thing, without the extra liquid. Cooks bitch back and forth about the various merits of wet vs. dry brining, but I’ll leave it to the masters for further explanation. For now, just know that the Zuni Café dry-brines their chicken. In practice, it’s a matter of seasoning the bird well and seasoning it early. Like, three days early.

“Three days? What kind of Lazarus chicken are you feeding us, D? That’s gonna kill us all!”

No it won’t. First, your fridge will keep a chicken fresh for a few days anyway. Second, salting the hell out of it ought to keep your bird from spoiling. (It also dries out the surface for better browning while keeping the meat moist and properly seasoned, which is the whole point of dry-brining in the first place.)

To make an adobo-flavoured dry brine (aka “rub”), I swapped out the regular kosher salt for other salty, delicious powders — garlic powder, soy sauce powder, and salt-and-vinegar popcorn seasoning. Yes, popcorn seasoning. It’s a nifty hack that works to impart the tangy flavour of vinegar, but with a higher pH. A higher pH means the seasoning doesn’t alter the texture of the meat the way actual vinegar does. Win-win. It’s a little unconventional (and I’m sure it sends a traditionalist farm-to-table chef like Judy Rodgers rolling in her grave). But, fuck it — it tastes damn good.

The Zuni Café serves its chicken over a classic bread salad to soak up the juices. Here, I’ve taken the same idea but twisted it Asian — a crispy rice salad that nods at Filipino sinangag as much as Italian panzanella. In the end, the whole dish splits the difference between high-end Californian cuisine and old-school home cooking with a Pacific Rim punch. Dig in, kids.

Zuni Café Roast Chicken Adobo

(HT to Mark Bittman and smitten kitchen for their takes on Filipino adobo and Zuni chicken, which I used as references. Onward!)

First, buy this stuff:

Image of Zuni chicken adobo ingredients

  • A small chicken, no more than 3.5 lbs. (You want a high skin-to-meat ratio.)
  • 2 tbsps soy sauce powder
  • 2 tsps garlic powder
  • 2 tbsps salt-and-vinegar popcorn seasoning
  • Black pepper
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 2 cups of cooked rice
  • 3 handfuls of arugula
  • ½ cup roasted cashews
  • ½ cup frozen green peas, defrosted
  • 1 tbsp grapeseed oil
  • 1 tsp rice vinegar
  • 3 tbsps coconut milk

Rinse the chicken thoroughly and pat it dry with paper towels.

Slide two fingers under the skin covering the breasts and wiggle them around to separate it from the meat. Slip the bay leaves in these pockets.

Image of chicken with skin peeled back

Mix together the soy sauce powder, garlic powder, salt-and-vinegar popcorn seasoning, and black pepper. Dust it liberally all over the chicken.

Image of chicken, rubbed with adobo seasoning

Lay the chicken on a rack over a baking sheet, exposing as much of the surface area as possible. Cover it loosely with aluminum foil and place it in your fridge.

Go to the cabin for a long weekend away. Seriously, you may as well — you’re not touching this chicken for at least two days (three is even better).

When you’re back in the real world and ready to cook, place a cast-iron pan in the oven and heat it to 475°F.

Remove the chicken from the fridge and pat it dry with paper towels again.

Once the oven’s heated, tuck the wings under the chicken and lay it in the pan, breast side up. It should sizzle wildly.

Return the pan (with the chicken in it) to the oven and wait 20 minutes.

Image of roast chicken after 20 minutes in oven

Flip the chicken oven so it’s breast-side down. Roast for another 20 minutes.

Take it out, flip it back over again, and roast for another 10 minutes. (These timings work for my oven, but you may need an extra 10 minutes here to there depending on your equipment.)

Remove the bird from the pan and transfer it to a wire rack to rest. Save the juices in the pan — we’re gonna need ‘em.

While the chicken rests, set another pan on the stove over medium heat.

Slice the garlic cloves thinly, like potato chips.

Add a good few glugs of oil to the pan and drop in the garlic slices.

Watch the garlic carefully as it browns, fishing out the slices with a spoon before they burn. Lay them on a paper towel to drain.

Image of garlic frying

Add one-third of the rice to the pan in a thin layer. Don’t touch it for a few minutes — you’re waiting for it to crisp like the bottom of paella or bibimbap.

After a few minutes, lift an edge of the rice to check if it’s brown and crispy. When it is, remove the rice to a large bowl and repeat the process with the remaining stuff.

Image of rice crisping

Add the arugula, cashews, green peas, and garlic chips to the rice. Drizzle in a little rice vinegar, salt, pepper, and additional oil as needed. Toss it loosely.

Stir the coconut milk into the pan juices and taste. Does it need additional soy sauce or vinegar? Add whatever it needs to finish the sauce.

Image of Zuni Cafe roast chicken adobo, with crisp rice salad

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