Growing up, Dan Mezzalingua, owner and CEO of Brine Chicken in Chelsea, Manhattan, often found he was unimpressed with chicken he was served.
“I found chicken to be very dry and tasteless. It was just not something I ever liked,” Mezzalingua says.
That all changed when he took a trip to the Caribbean. He stumbled upon a humble roadside shack in which a 50-gallon (189L) drum had been split in half and turned into a chicken grill. Mezzalingua had never imagined chicken could taste so good and ended up frequenting the place every day for the rest of the trip. He chatted to the cook and learned the key to making the chicken: brining.
To the uninitiated, brining is a cooking technique where food is soaked in brine (basically salt water) or just coarse salt, along with additional ingredients like herbs, spices, sugar and vinegar, in order to preserve, season and enhance the flavor of the food.
Mezzalingua became obsessed with trying to recreate the brine himself and searching for restaurants that served something similar. “I was always looking for that Caribbean chicken and I couldn’t find it anywhere,” he says. Ultimately, he left his career to work his way into the food world, with the goal of opening up his own restaurant that would showcase this beloved chicken. After completing a culinary program for business entrepreneurs at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), he joined in a partnership with chef Joe LoNigro (a founding partner at mini-chain Otto’s Tacos), who helped Mezzalingua develop the menu for what would ultimately become Brine Chicken.
Brine Chicken’s concept is simple: provide customers with tender, juicy chicken. From start to finish, the chicken takes 36 hours to make. It’s brined for 24 hours in a top-secret concoction (which Mezzalingua reveals is, at its base, simply a mix of herbs, garlic, salt and sugar). The brine hydrates the cells of the chicken and weakens the fibers. “It infuses the cells of the chicken [and] enhances it,” Mezzalingua says. After the 24-hour brining process, the chicken is removed and placed in the fridge for another eight hours to get rid of all the excess moisture. Then it’s grilled over an open flame and served.
Brine Chicken’s small menu is focused on chicken that can be prepared in three ways. The signature thigh quarter and spatchcock half chicken are both charred on the grill and painted with blackened chili and honey-garlic sauce. The third option is a sandwich: pulled chicken in between two slices of butter-grilled brioche with black-pepper aioli and grilled coleslaw. For more punch, customers are encouraged to frequent the sauce bar to drizzle colorful sauces like charred jalapeño and cilantro and honey mustard over the chicken. There’s also a host of sides, like crinkle-cut french fries, charred broccoli and roasted beets with goat cheese tzatziki. Three vegetarian salads round out the menu.
Although the restaurant’s elevating of chicken differentiates it from other eateries in New York’s crowded fast-casual market, what makes the place definitively stand out is the ordering system. Instead of someone standing behind a register taking orders, all orders are placed on touchscreen computer displays called TRAY kiosks, which boast flashy photos of the dishes. Simply tap what you’d like to eat, and the order is immediately sent to the kitchen. If you’re confused about how to work the kiosks, there are floating customer service representatives who can answer any questions.
“It’s more personal than someone bored sitting behind a register,” Mezzalingua says. “It makes things more pleasant.”
Mezzalingua hopes that customers will appreciate this innovative technological twist on the fast-casual concept and, most importantly, fall in love with brined chicken the way he did at that unpretentious shack in the Caribbean.
“The revolution against dry chicken is our informal model,” Mezzalingua says with a laugh. “It’s been a lot of fun.”