Celebrating Labor Day, Usual Style

The chef Alvin Cailan made his name on eggs—in sandwich form, at a food truck called Eggslut, in L.A. At the Usual, he has graduated to chicken, battered and fried so that its crust is as craggy as a mountain range. It’s served with blueberry muffins and house-made ranch, plus a garlicky hot sauce on request. Photograph by Christaan Felber for The New Yorker

The photo above is an immediate trigger for me, in that today is Labor Day in the USA. It is a holiday I recall with fondness from my youth. It signified the end of summer, which was never in itself to be celebrated, but it also signified the beginning of school. And for me school was the center of life, so the closing of summer meant back to all good things. This year, as summer closes, not so much. But the photo above allows me a moment of solace.

Amie and I recently passed through Los Angeles en route to a wedding, and came across this “questionably named”restaurant (not the one pictured above, but the one referred to in the first paragraph below). I do not think of myself as a prude, but when I see a name like that I immediately become uninterested. The shock of the new is not the problem. Coarsening of language and culture is the problem. Enough. A good rule of thumb might be something like this question: would you be happy telling your young child(ren) the name of this place where we are going to eat?

But then again I am occasionally surprised by how, after judging a book by its cover, I can reconsider and think otherwise. In this case the cover of the book (i.e. the name of the restaurant) is still one I would rather have been different, but the contents of the book have my full attention. Thanks to Hannah Goldfield for providing this case in point:

Standout Fried Chicken Amid Familiar Fare at the Usual

At Alvin Cailan’s first sit-down restaurant, in the Nolitan Hotel, the Eggslut creator graduates to the full bird.

For the chef Alvin Cailan, the egg came first. The egg sandwich, to be specific, a messy, photogenic one on a brioche bun, first served in 2011, from a food truck, questionably named Eggslut, in Los Angeles. Eggslut became a pop-up in New York (since popped down) and then a mini-chain, with several outposts in the L.A. area and one in Las Vegas. Cailan built his name on the egg. Now, at the Usual, his first proper sit-down venture, recently opened in the Nolitan Hotel, he has graduated to the chicken.

It was a smart decision, especially given the Nolitan’s proximity to a restaurant called the Egg Shop, which would have made for tough competition. There are eggs on offer at the Usual, of the standard devilled variety, distinguished (though not much) by the addition of crab meat, but the main attraction is a full-grown bird, battered and deep-fried. The first time I ate it, I marvelled at the mountainous cragginess of the exceptionally thick, crispy crust, and at the carnal pleasure of the fat it had absorbed in the fryer, cut with a sprinkling of zingy Cajun herbs and spices, twinkling red like the glitter on a burlesque dancer’s corset. I thought of my grandmother, of food intended to convey that the person who made it loves you and wants to send endorphins cascading through your brain. I thought of Doritos. The second time I ate it, for I could not resist, the batter was somehow even crunchier, cracking off of the juicy meat in salty shales the size of oyster shells. In a town that’s grown crowded with great fried chicken—Southern, Korean, quadruple-fried and served cold, at the bar at Momofuku Ko—it’s all the more impressive for standing out…

Read the whole review here.

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