We spoke with Eric Huang of Pecking House about his incredible fried chicken.
Eric Huang never expected to be making some of the best fried chicken in the country.
The Juilliard-graduate began his culinary career shortly after college, knocking on the doors of restaurants in Illinois, hoping to find work. Soon enough, he found his way to Eleven Madison Park where he served as a Sous Chef. And then in January of 2020, he decided to quit. Huang wanted to go out on his own and fulfill his dream of opening his very own fine dining restaurant in Manhattan.
“It couldn’t have been worse timing,” Huang grinned.
With restaurants shuttered by the pandemic and investors clinging to their wallets, the New York Native was left with no choice but to abandon the fine dining world for the meantime. While working in his mother’s kitchen in Long Island City, he was desperate for escape. His cousin provided a solution. “My cousin came up to me and said, ‘you know your dad’s space is just sitting there, empty,’ and he asked me ‘would you want to cook there?’ I was entranced by the idea of having this abandoned kitchen all to myself.”
Peking House, Huang’s father’s restaurant, sits on a somewhat random corner of Queens. It’s a beautiful building, but the kitchen remains far from ideal. It does not have a working oven or broiler, but instead just a few deep fryers, and a four burner stove. Only two work. Huang said “we were very limited in what we could cook from a capabilities standpoint,” but that was only half of it. Starting a restaurant of sorts in the pandemic meant Huang also had to do delivery and so that was another factor to consider. So far from his customer base in Manhattan, he settled on wanting to serve around 20 meals a week, mostly to friends, just to make ends meet.
He started toying around and asking, “What’s something that people want to eat at home that’s comforting?” and so “we tried out all of these things and the fried chicken was the clear winner.”
If you think you know fried chicken, you haven’t had it quite like this. Huang’s is a blend between Chinese and American identities, ones he grew up juggling his entire life. The chicken is buttermilk marinated, with a crunchy flour crust—American—but has flavors that have never been combined before like Tianjin chilis, Szechuan Peppercorn, five spice, and more.
This was all they served, plus an array of sides, stuffed in a brown bag, with a Tsingtao Lager or two, and delivered to your doorstep. Miraculously, the chicken was always crispy and warm, something Huang took a painstaking approach to get right.
But getting the chicken became elusive. Soon enough, Pecking House accrued a waitlist of 5,000 customers and counting, and was only able to serve about 120 meals a day due to delivery constraints. The delivery drivers weren’t Grubhub or Doordash, but were instead ex-Eleven Madison Park employees, who have since gone back to work.
“When things started to open up, my friends were like, ‘guess it’s time to get our careers back in line,’ and I was like great, you sure you still don't want to drive for me?.” As a result, Huang launched an outdoor dining space, right outside of Peking House.
The new menu, only available in person, expands on Huang’s success: the chicken sandwich. which Huang refers to as “the middle child,” is glazed with a dark soy caramel sauce and topped with a mouthwatering pineapple jam, stuffed inside of a brioche bun. If you think you’re getting a knife to cut it in half, you’re not. Huang has also added salt and pepper duck drumettes with pickled jalapeño, and orange pepper wet wings soaked in a citrus butter sauce and finished with hot paprika.
As for the fine dining world, Huang doesn’t think he’s going back anytime soon. “In my mind,” Huang said, “fine dining is pushing the boundary of where we can go, and then it comes back and resurfaces in your local pub.” He says, “I don’t miss fine dining really. I find that cooking this way is really a lot more rewarding and people really enjoy it. They are just happy to eat something delicious and understand immediately what it is.”
Photos by Kai Chuang
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