Diners flocking to Metro Vancouver’s burgeoning fried-chicken scene

Consumer choice has come a long way from the days when KFC and Church’s were the sole choices

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To have a Jollibee restaurant nearby, with the smell of spices and chicken frying, brings back warm memories for Dalisay Reyes of her native Philippines.

“It reminds me of home,” she said as her two young sons dig into their jolly crispy chicken meals at the Jollibee on Cambie Street.

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“It would be like suddenly seeing a Keg restaurant pop up in the Philippines.”

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Jollibee, a Filipino chain, opened its fourth Metro Vancouver restaurant on Wednesday on 72 Avenue in Surrey, the 100th Jollibee in North America (and among the more than 6,300 Jollibees worldwide).

“It’s a huge milestone,” said Enrique Hernandez, Jollibee’s senior account executive. “There’s a big Filipino population in Surrey and there was such a warm reception for the King George Boulevard location when it opened.

“Worldwide, Jollibee has a heavy presence, comparable to McDonald’s.”

Employee Mildred Reyes shows off a giant bucket of fried chicken at Jollibee Opening on 72nd ave near 120th street in Surrey, BC, January 24, 2024.(Arlen Redekop / Postmedia staff photo) Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

There was a time when options were limited when it came to fried chicken in Vancouver, and those options were mostly chain restaurants.

Today, there is a proliferation of independent fried-chicken joints offering flavours from around the world, inspired by Southern-fried to Japanese karaage to Korean yangnyeom and Filipino proben.

Places that make best-of lists for fried-chicken include the likes of Their There, Le Coq Frit and Chewie’s Chicken and Biscuits in Kitsilano, L.A. Chicken in Richmond, Downlow Chicken Shack on Commercial Drive, the Frying Pan in the West End, and Juke Fried Chicken in Chinatown — just a handful of the burgeoning number of fried-chicken outlets.

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“There used to be basically only two options, KFC and Church’s,” said Justin Tisdall, owner of Juke.

Juke opened in 2016 after three years in the planning, making it a granddaddy among independent fried-chicken places in the Lower Mainland.

Its kitchen is gluten-free, which chef Bruan Satterford, who co-owns Juke with Tisdall, says makes the crust crispier and that take-out orders travel better, besides appealing to those who are gluten-intolerant.

“To be independent against two massive corporations, we knew would be a bit of a struggle,” Tisdall said. “But we also knew it was a market that hadn’t really been tapped yet.”

He compared it to pioneering fast-food places of the past, such as boutique pizza parlours and tacorias, which after one or two opened there came a flood of like-minded eateries.

“And now you’re seeing that with fried chicken,” Tisdall said.

Juke even has a Valentine’s Day special, bouquets of original-gangster fried-chicken — “Flower are overdone, but fried chicken is forever.”

“I think Vancouver is a great city where people really want to support the local businesses and local restaurants,” Tisdall said.

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“So if you can provide a better product for as close as you can for a similar price that’s made with local ingredients, I feel people really want to support that.”

At Chewie’s, owner Richard Chew arrives early to bake biscuits, and leaves late after the lights are turned off.

He is Italian-Chinese (no chicken ciao mein jokes, please), spices up his sauces with flavours from South Asia and — a popular idea now but something as unheard of not too long ago as a restaurant being gluten-free — offers a popular chicken Benedict brunch.

“To stand out in Vancouver you can’t get away with your service and your product not being the best,” Chew said. “Once there was pretty much just KFC-style fried chicken and now you see spicing techniques from dozens of countries.

“The options out there are amazing.”

Chef Liam Fay creates a Hot Momma Chicken Benny at Chewie’s Chicken and Biscuits in Vancouver, BC, January 25, 2024.(Arlen Redekop / Postmedia staff photo) Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

As they would put it at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, the market reflects demand.

Tim Silk, an associate professor of marketing and behavioural science, lives off Commercial Drive and is a fan of Downlow Chicken Shack — it reminds him of the fried chicken he enjoyed when he lived in the Deep South.

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“They’ve found a niche and no one else is doing it like that,” he said. “Finding a niche, the differentiation, none of these (fried-chicken outlets) are copycats. They’re all doing original things.”

Birds of a feather, so to speak, but flocking independently of each other.

Richard (Chewie) Chew (left) and chef Liam Fay with Hot Momma Chicken Benny at Chewie’s Chicken and Biscuits in Vancouver. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

At Their There, Catherine Wong — Chef Cat, as she’s known — fuses spices from her native Korea with a buttermilk marinade.

“I’d never heard people talk about going out just for Korean fried chicken until maybe the last five years,” she said. “I think when people think of Korean food they think of barbecue.

“I think Vancouver is slow in a lot of ways when it comes to a lot of cuisines. The fried-chicken places are popular, for sure.”

Part of Vancouver lagging behind might be that it takes time for immigrants to get established, Juke’s Tisdall figures.

There could be initial language issues, remittances sent home, problems getting backers.

“It takes time,” he said. “But now you can see we’ve got Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Southern U.S., a massive influence of different cultures. It’s starting to flourish and shine.

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“Living in Vancouver is not inexpensive, so people are opening restaurants with what they have and are trying to be as creative and different as possible.”

Hot Momma Chicken Benny at Chewie’s Chicken and Biscuits in Vancouver, BC, January 25, 2024.(Arlen Redekop / Postmedia staff photo) Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

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