It’s a dark, rainy Saturday night. I’m on the tram with a friend, headed to a gig at Cherry Bar. After a huge dinner at home, food is the last thing on my mind. My mate didn’t have the foresight to eat. He wants to hop off the tram early to get fried chicken at Sonny’s, inside the Curtin Hotel. I grudgingly agree. Neither of us had the foresight to bring an umbrella or jacket.
We hurry through the frigid, pelting rain for several blocks, pausing under eaves to wipe our faces with sodden sleeves. We reach the historic boozer and set up a couple of beers while he waits for his four-piece tray. (Good fried chicken is cooked to order and takes time.)
The chicken arrives. He offers me a piece. I almost refuse. Dinner’s still weighing in my guts. Then something surprising happens. I take an exploratory bite, and my appetite is suddenly … there. I need this chicken, with its brittle burnt-caramel-hued exterior and evenly salted, brilliant white interior. I no longer care that I’m damp. And that gig that seemed so important before? I’m wondering whether we even need to go anymore. We could just stay here eating.
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My next bite includes a dab of house-made hot sauce. My mouth flares like a gas lantern, fuelled by something equal parts vinegary, fruity and spicy. The masochistic burn persists through multiple sips of lager. I’m hooked, and beg a second piece of chicken from my increasingly amused friend. It’s the same as the first. Taut and crisp all over, with no saggy or soggy spots. Robustly savoury. Moist right through. I’m in love.
You know, this series, I Can’t Stop Thinking About, is meant to be about more than just burgers, pizzas, fried chicken and other calorie bombs. I really did want to write about something suave and grown-up this time, like smoked beetroot. But as the old wisdom says, you don’t get to choose who – or what – you love. The chicken chose me, and lured me back a few weeks later to confirm that first night wasn’t a fluke (it wasn’t).
Sonny’s, I’ve learnt, works its consistent magic with a $22,000 pressure-fryer imported from Ohio. This important bit of kit, essentially a deep-fryer with a strong lid, cooks chicken more evenly, at a lower temperature, and prevents it from drying out. Though these machines are found at fried chicken joints all over the US, they’re rare here, where most kitchens use regular deep-fryers. Brunswick’s Juanita Peaches also has one. In what I doubt is a coincidence, its chicken is also worth writing about.
But back to Sonny’s. After cutting each bird into eight roughly equal bone-in portions, chef Craig Mettrick and his team soak the pieces in a marinade of salt, buttermilk, and herbs and spices for at least 24 hours, letting the flavours become one with the chicken. On a given day they prep at least 20 kilos of white meat and 20 kilos of dark meat.
The next day the wet, buttermilk-y pieces are rolled in a dry flour mix containing more salt and similar herbs and spices. Then they’re dropped into 150-degree oil, locked under the hood and fried for precisely 13 minutes. Sonny’s has been doing its thing for six years, with Mettrick in command for all but six months of that, so every step is well and truly dialled in. The cooker fits just 24 pieces at a time. It’s in high demand on Friday and Saturday nights, when there are typically gigs upstairs. (Ticketholders get a 20 per cent discount on food.)
The house-made spicy mayo, gravy, ranch and barbeque sauces are all worth your attention. But the dipper that ignited my tastebuds is a mix of garlic, vinegar, cayenne and habanero chillies, which explains the long-lasting burn with a delicate fruity accent. I’m writing this a few moments after lunch. My mouth is still having phantom feelings.
Sonny’s Fried Chicken and Burgers
Inside the Curtin Hotel, 29 Lygon Street, Carlton
(03) 9663 6350
Tue 12pm–11.30pm (kitchen closes at 10pm)
Wed & Thu 12pm–12am (kitchen closes at 10pm)
Fri 12pm–2am (kitchen closes at 10pm)
Sat 1pm–2am (kitchen closes at 10pm)
Sun 1pm–11pm (kitchen closes at 10pm)
Sonny’s also has a location inside the Gem in Collingwood. While it uses identical suppliers and recipes, it doesn’t have a pressure-fryer and hence runs a smaller menu that’s more focused on chicken burgers.