Water won’t help you now
Ye-Gon: Right now, I’m sitting at the table located right in front of the salad cabinet. It’s late night, and if there was a rush earlier this evening, there’s no sign of it. I just ordered the “Proper Hot” chicken, the hottest fried chicken they have on the menu, and (slightly nervously) waiting for my food while Natalia chows down on a ridiculously fudgy and decadent peanut butter and chocolate brownie. Then I remember that I have an ulcer in my mouth.
Winner Winner is a neat little spot, a long corridor type of deal like some of the other places on Grey Street. The decor and the whole set-up smells equal parts hipster and inviting homeliness. They have a rotating salad and dessert selection on display, but the big menu on the wall is way off to the side, and a little difficult to glance back and forth while ordering at the counter. They ran out of the wood-fired chicken (which was the main reason for my visit), but I get it, it was almost closing time.
When the buttermilk-battered boneless chicken does finally arrive, the chicken isn’t the bright red Nashville hot chicken I presumed it would be in my head, but it is piled high with a copious amount of dried chili flakes, and a whaff of acid and piquancy immediately assaults my olfactory senses. Even though the appearance alone doesn’t give it away, it’s still served in the right fashion, with a slice of bread and pickles. The ranch dip is also a nice touch. So I take a gulp of water, grow a pair, and get tuckered. The crust is beautifully craggly and gnarly, and the chicken itself is neither too dry and chalky, nor too wet, but with a perfect bite. I don’t like my fried chicken to be gushing with juice, so this is right on the mark in my book. But all of that soon becomes an afterthought, because the peppers start knocking on the door.
I’m Korean, and I’m used to the Korean way of hot and spicy. It’s a deep, but delicate heat. Disciplined, some might say; it politely introduces itself, then shows itself out when the time is right. It’s not, as my folks say, the “cruel” heat of Sichuan cuisine, nor the “sharp and stabby” heat of Indian curries. This chicken is none of those things. It’s a sustained heat. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. And it’s a gift that follows the food as it makes its way down. Every bite is another trumpet joining in with a different sustained note, every bite getting louder and more out of control. The pickles go some way to temper the heat, but for a fleeting moment, and the unrelenting burn returns.
What does help a fair bit more are the poutine and the mac and cheese balls. The rich gravy works well with the cheese, which, while not authentic curds, still have a nice stretch and bite together with the fries. The mac and cheese is pleasantly smoky and not overladen with cheese, although I would have liked a bit more ooey-gooey bechamel goodness. The Twistie dust instead of Cheeto crumbs is a nice touch.
I’m about two-thirds of the way through the chicken now. Natalia’s giving me stink eyes for making her try a bite of this hell incarnate. Outside, I’m trying to maintain composure, but my nose is running, and my eyes are watering. Inside, I’m contemplating the big questions. Why have I done this to myself? Can God create an object so heavy he cannot lift it? How could one trisect an angle using a compass and a straight edge? And why can’t I just put down the bloody piece of this bloody chicken, and call it quits? So much pain, yet I must keep eating. Which am I, Christian, or Anastasia?
And then suddenly, with the final morsel, it’s over. The engulfing flame, the crispy chicken, the desperate gasps for air. All that remains is a fluorescent orange stain on the slice of bread where the chicken used to sit, as if a photograph of an old, forgotten memory. Sanity returns, and with it, composure. And maybe my sense of hearing, which I didn’t realise I either lost or stopped paying attention to for about five minutes. And as we step into the car and start driving away, a single thought pervades my mind: Can’t wait to do this all over again next week. I’m Ye-Gon, and I’m a winner.
Winner Winner is located at 439 Grey Street, Hamilton East. They’re open Monday to Saturday from 11:00am till late.