Would you drive an hour for great fried chicken? Consider that the bonus of visiting Curiosity Doughnuts in Stockton, NJ, is the chance to lay hands on the best yeast donuts in the region, and the answer gets easier. But the chicken, introduced two weeks ago at this tiny corner stand inside a weekend-only indoor market, is also worth the trip.
The crunchy, golden pieces of poultry chef Alex Talbot is selling — only a dozen servings a day, for now — are unlike any other fried chicken out there.
Made from boneless thighs and served two to an order, the early results of what Talbot is calling his “Fried Chicken Project” are an irresistible combination of crispy and juicy and savory, with strong flavors of corn and meat and spice. Because it’s fried in rice bran oil, it has none of the greasy saltiness associated with classic fried chicken, so it might not edge out your stored memory of the best version you ever had. Instead, it’ll give your brain a whole new category of something to crave.
That’s probably true even if you’re not already a fried chicken fan.
“This is the best chicken I’ve ever had…and I’m a vegetarian,” said a woman between bites last weekend.
“I don’t usually even like chicken, and this is great,” concurred another customer.
Ask Talbot why he decided to add a savory protein to the lineup of donuts he’s been selling out of since last fall, and he has a simple answer: “I was hungry.” But it’s also because he realized that the shop gave him an opportunity to get instant feedback about the cooking experiments he and wife/business partner Aki Kamozawa have been enmeshed in for decades. The couple has three cookbooks to their name and make a living off of consulting for other chefs around the world. Now, with their first retail stand — which they view almost as a “micro-restaurant” — they have a live test audience.
“I’m on version 10 of the donuts,” Talbot says, noting that the lineup changes just about every weekend. New options include a much-improved chocolate yeast batter, a version filled with tangy Boston creme, and donuts in flavors like banana cream pie, tutti fruitti, butterscotch, and s’mores.
Also new is the cornbread donut that comes with the fried chicken, which, depending on your taste, might be the best pastry mashup in existence.
Masa flour is added to the regular flour mix, and then fried as a “thumbprint” — Talbot’s name for what happens when he cuts the hole from the donut’s center but leaves it in while frying. It creates a depression in the center, which he fills with tomato-jalapeno marmelade after coating the whole thing in chile-flecked black lime glaze. The end result is like the cross between a pineapple upside-down cake and a hush puppy, with extra spice and crunch.
It’s not sold on its own, but tossed in with your fried chicken order, which goes for $9 and includes two big poultry pieces and a bit of donut “debris” (these snack-happy dough scraps, fried and sugar-dusted, are also available by the bag).
The same masa — aka nixtamalized corn — used in those cornbread donuts are a key to what makes Curiosity’s chicken so good.
Talbot first brines his boneless thighs overnight in buttermilk mixed with pickle juice, liquid smoke and Crystal hot sauce, which both tenderizes the meat and adds “funky” flavor. He then scores each piece so it better grabs the coating, and dredges it through a masa and potato starch with a bit of salt. It fries up in just three minutes, then rests on a wire rack, the browned nuggets of crust just barely glistening. Before bringing them out to the stand on a tray, each couplet of thighs is doused in a spicy-sweet syrup (last weekend it was black lime honey caramel; this weekend it looks like Luchito Mexico honey is in the mix).
What’s it like? Think Popeyes but more flavorful, Chick-Fil-A but crunchier, your favorite Philly fried chicken sandwich but juicier.
Because of the way the Curiosity Doughnuts stand is run, where Talbot spends the morning by the fryer, then staffs the counter during the afternoon, the chicken isn’t fried to order. Currently, he makes just a dozen servings and puts them out at noon as he leaves the kitchen for the day. But even though it’s not piping hot when you get it, the chicken will still disappear within seconds (warning: don’t try to just take one bite a test, you’ll end up eating the whole piece). If you’re taking it home, you can easily reheat it in in the toaster oven, Talbot told several patrons who asked, though he advised against tossing it in the microwave. “It’ll lose the crunchiness.”
Customers who visit the stand are often confused about how something so great ended up in a small corner in a tiny suburban town on the Delaware River in New Jersey.
“Where’s your other store?” many of them ask. “Do you also run a restaurant?”
For now, there isn’t one, but that doesn’t mean it might not happen in the future. Talbot is still making a weekly commute from his home in New Hampshire, but he and Kamozawa are closing on a house near Stockton and will make the move soon, likely in March. When that happens, Talbot notes, he’ll gain two extra days that used to be spent in the car…and with all that extra time, anything’s possible.
Until then, expect more experimentation with the fried chicken at the stand. People have asked for breasts in addition to thighs, so Talbot’s working on that, and is also looking into an alternate dredge using pretzel crumb. Pretzel fried chicken? Bring it on.