In winter 2020 Frango and El Jannah – the dual heads of Sydney’s charcoal chicken diarchy – both unveiled their own drive-through operations to help offset ongoing capacity restrictions and the threat of future lockdowns.
Always willing to step into the fray in the name of “research”, we fuelled up our car, picked a chicken-appropriate playlist (plenty of the Eagles, the Chicks and Andrew Bird) and set off to compare Sydney’s favourite charry chooks.
Since 1992, Frango has been serving marinated, charcoal-roasted chicken, smeared with superlative Portuguese chilli sauce, in the heart of Petersham’s Little Portugal. Over the ensuing decades the eatery’s expanded to several locations across the west, and it’s now claiming the latest outpost in Edmondson Park is Australia’s first charcoal chicken drive-through.
Driving up Camden Valley Way, half an hour west of the Sydney CBD, a large, flashing sign alerts us to the nearby presence of grilled chook.
As widely (and rightly) beloved as Frango’s chicken burgers are, we’re here to experience the chain’s magic in its purest form, so we order a quarter-chicken, chips and sauce. We’re asked by the muffled voice if we want our chicken brushed with chilli sauce (a question to which the only acceptable answer is “yes”), and then we’re following the bitumen to the serving window. Soon our car is filled with the intoxicating scents of chicken and chilli, delivered without any of Frango’s famously brusque customer service.
The darkly roasted drumstick and thigh are dripping with Frango’s signature chilli sauce, a thick, savoury concoction that brings good heat without blowing the windows out of the car. Well-seasoned shoestring fries bathe in the sauce that falls from the chicken, and a small tub of mayonnaise swirled with chilli sauce is on hand for dipping.
It’s only once the food is gone, our faces and hands glossy with chilli sauce and mayonnaise, that we realise we haven’t received napkins, forcing us to awkwardly open the door with our only dry finger and waddle into the restaurant to wash ourselves.
It’s a half-hour drive from Frango to Smithfield, where El Jannah, home of Sydney’s other favourite charcoal chicken, also recently opened a drive-through.
El Jannah first took charcoal to chook in Granville in 1998, bringing a Lebanese approach to its menu with a lemon marinade and distinctly Middle Eastern assembly of sides. It’s with visions of its pickles, pita bread and – oh man – extra smooth, extra garlicky toum (garlic sauce) that we pull into the industrial Smithfield side street that leads to the drive-through.
The queue of cars that confronts us, while likely frustrating to other diners, offers us the promise of a few more minutes to digest the first of our chicken feasts. Things move quickly, though, and in less time than it takes to find a new playlist (the Byrds, Sheryl Crow, Robyn), we’re in front of another menu and being welcomed by another speaker box.
Aside from the burgers and wraps (known in these parts as “rolls”), chicken is available as part of either a “meal” or a “plate”. The former delivers chips, a drink and garlic sauce with your chicken, while the latter swaps out the chips for pita and the Pepsi for pickles (the garlic sauce, of course, is an essential element of both).
We go for the plate. There’s a second queue of cars waiting to receive their food, but the pause gives us the opportunity to follow El Jannah on Instagram, which gets us a free bottle of water at the window. A heaving brown bag is passed to us carefully before we drive off to find a car park.
The next few minutes are spent observing a more awkward variation on the traditional El Jannah ritual: tear a small piece of pita bread (accidentally tap the car horn); smear it with a generous slick of garlic sauce (knock the bottle of water off the dashboard); lay down a bed of pickles (elbow the driver’s side window); peel away a piece of chicken and lay it over the pickles (activate the hazard lights); fold the whole thing up and slide it into your mouth (marinate lap in garlic sauce).
Well-seasoned chicken, perfectly acidic pickles, unparalleled garlic sauce, soft pita bread – it’s everything we love about El Jannah without needing to confront any of our recently acquired coronavirus-related social anxieties.
We drive home satisfied, a small toum stalactite dangling from the steering wheel, our brave experiment complete. Our afternoon has proved that El Jannah and Frango remain as worthy of their considerable reputations as they always have been, that drive-throughs might be the Covid-resistant future of dining, and that if you’re keen to avoid cleaning garlic sauce off your side mirror, it might be worth waiting until you get home to eat (or ordering a burger).
Mon to Sat 10.30am–9.30pm
3/16 Smithfield Road, Smithfield
Mon to Wed 10am–11pm
Thu to Sat 10am–midnight
Greater Sydney is currently in lockdown. Frango and El Jannah's drive-throughs are in LGAs considered to be of concern – if you leave outside these LGAs, it is currently against NSW Health regulations to enter unless for essential work or reasons.