Does the world need another spicy fried chicken sandwich? Nashville owns the space, with sanity-testing cayenne pepper levels. LA is now a hotbed of hot chicken. Portland has its own hot sauce–happy options among its ranks of excellent fried chicken, including the colossal, Crystal-honied signature at Jojo's food truck, a weekly Wednesday spicy sandwich at Gumba, and a menu mainstay at the recently returned Basilisk. That’s not to mention the nationwide spicy chicken sandwich fervor inspired by Popeye’s.
But Expatriate has answered the question with an exclamation point. No, we don't need another copycat or double dare. Yes, we need a spicy fried chicken sandwich with a fresh point of view, attention to details, and enough danger to keep things interesting: a sandwich good enough to not just enter the field but vie for the crown.
This is it: juicy-tender chicken thighs, fairy-dusted with tingly Sichuan peppercorns, and deep-fried to a flaky, craggy crunch. House-made black vinegar pickles add a slingshot of umami. What unites it all: an electric mayonnaise charged with charred Fresno chiles. Every bite has layers and contrasts—crackle, heat, acid, the cool snap of a whole iceberg lettuce leaf, the soft sink of a butter roll from An Xuyên Bakery, crisply toasted.
The name says it all: “Properly Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwich.” It's been hiding on the menu since early March—the brainstorm and handiwork of 26-year-old cook Tyler Hansen. How did we miss this?
Oh, right, the pandemic. Kyle Linden Webster and Naomi Pomeroy's Expatriate is still operating in temporary mode: takeout and delivery only, Thursday–Saturday, 4–9 p.m. Orders can be made on Instagram (@expatriatepdx) or at the bar's front door, at 5424 NE 30 Ave. Webster says the hope is to reopen for full indoor service on July 11, the bar's eighth anniversary.
That the menu even has a new option is unusual. Expatriate, one of Portland's best bars since 2013, keeps the menu tightly curated. Nearly every dish is a “greatest hit.” That includes Portland's best classic cheeseburger (at least according to PoMo's “Burger Cabal”), as well as the weirdest, most awesome nachos around, crackling with fried wonton skin chips and spicy Velveeta cheese. As Pomeroy put it, “We don't do a dish just to do it. We only want to create the best version of that thing. It has to hit all the cylinders. It has to be a serious attempt.”
Hansen pitched the idea at a staff meeting. He wanted it to be fun and also different from Nashville hot chicken. And he took inspiration from his favorite dish to cook at home, mala chicken (Chongqing laziji), the legendary Chinese dish ablaze in blackened dried red chiles and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. “I love that intriguing spice level,” he says. Hansen’s buttermilk-brined chicken thighs get a tease of the peppercorns—just enough for a little lip buzz. Mostly, the heat comes not from the meat, or even the batter, but from the charred Fresno chile mayo, an homage to laziji. “That's where I wanted to power it,” says Hansen, “in the sauce.”
Hansen worked the wok station at Departure in downtown Portland for two years. He swears by the heat of Fresno chiles, which he finds richer than the cayenne pepper typically found in Nashville versions. But what I like about this sandwich is its remarkable balance, everything rocketing around your mouth, but nothing in your face.
Another great touch: Hansen's rich, savory black vinegar pickles. “My boss (Kyle) doesn't like bread and butter pickles,” he confides. “He also likes cheese on his fried chicken sandwiches. That didn't make the cut.”
The perfect chaser is right across the street: a frozen custard banana split at the Ripe Collective market, opened last fall after Pomeroy shuttered her iconic Beast restaurant at 5425 NE 30th Ave. Each cup holds one huge scoop, the kitchen's chocolate fudge sauce, salted Spanish peanuts, whipped cream, and a split-open banana, torched to a golden finish. And, of course, a maraschino cherry, born in Pomeroy's hometown, Corvallis.
The $12 mini sundae includes a choice of house flavors from a recipe that demands 12 egg yolks per quart. Options in the works, from Pomeroy and her right-hand Mika Paredes: café au lait, chocolate date with hazelnut butter, and malted strawberry. “It's a little cheeky,” says Pomeroy. “It's fun to get the torch out.”