Herbert Hoover, while campaigning in the 1928 presidential election, promised Americans a “chicken in every pot.” Unfortunately for Hoover, shortly after his election the stock market crashed, America tumbled into the Great Depression, and chicken quickly became impossible for the average person to afford. Americans, enraged by their chickenless pots, quickly gave Hoover the boot and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election by a landslide. Three Roosevelt terms later, chicken was once again cheap and plentiful. Luckily for us in Canada, some of the best and cheapest chicken restaurants sprung up in Montreal.
One of the first chicken restaurants in the Montreal area was St-Hubert. Originally founded in 1951, there are now more than a hundred St-Hubert restaurants scattered throughout Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick. Indeed, the business has become massive; last year St-Hubert’s Montreal call centre took more that 1.9 million orders.
“Barbecue chicken, as a commercial phenomenon, seemed to originate [with St-Hubert] and then it spread across the country,” says McGill’s Nathalie Cooke, a professor in the faculty of arts and a researcher of Canadian food history. Fried chicken was more of an American story; “It was a marriage between ‘the Colonel’ and George Gardiner, who developed the Scott’s Chicken Villas in the 1960s,” says Cooke.
In the Plateau, Kentucky Fried Chicken and St-Hubert franchises are hard to come by, whereas family-run Portuguese chicken restaurants dominate the local takeout scene. And amongst those that frequent Plateau Portuguese chicken restaurants, rumor has it that three particular establishments are head and shoulders – or should I say, “beak and breasts” – above the competition.
On the corner of de Bullion and Rachel sits Romados, one of the Plateau’s most popular chicken restaurants. Founded in 1994, the restaurant claims to cook almost 300 chickens per day and recommends placing orders by phone at least an hour in advance. Romados, which doubles as a Portuguese bakery, serves barbecued chicken and fries out of a greasy takeout window at the back of the store. But along with serving up some tasty chicken, the restaurant is also known for serving up a long line.
“The count against Romados is that they have the stupidest fucking takeout system I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” says Sam Solomon, a frequent patron of Romados and a self-described chicken expert. “It’s worse than Schwartz’s,” he says. “If you call ahead, they tell you to come at a certain time and you get there and you just have to stand in a different line than you usually would.”
But despite a wait that can sometimes hit 20 minutes, Solomon prefers Romados chicken to the other Portuguese chicken he’s had in the plateau. Chicken from Coco Rico, he claims, looks too much like an actual chicken: “You could imagine it flying away.” And he says that the employees at Romados are the most entertaining. “The lady serving chicken always gives you a wink and calls you mon cheri.”
At $10.99 for a whole chicken, a meal from Romados is tasty and relatively cheap.
Walking southwest from Romados one soon reaches Coco Rico at the corner of St. Laurent and Napolean. Coco Rico is one of several chicken restaurants in Montreal that is owned by the Castanheira family. The Castanheiras opened Janos, beside Schwartz’s, in the 1970s and Coco Rico a short time later. And they recently opened a third rotisserie joint at the corner of Mont Royal and St. Laurent.
Coco Rico, which sells at least 300 chickens per day and sometimes more on the weekends, is the Castanheiras’ busiest restaurant. Unlike Romados, Coco Rico’s chicken is cooked on a spit in a rotisserie oven. The action of the rotisserie makes the chicken’s skin golden brown, something you just can’t get with a barbecue. “The way the Coco Rico skin kinda sticks to your teeth,” Ryan Bergen, a freelance writer and frequent Coco Rico customer, says, “I kinda like that.”
Bergen, much like Solomon, considers himself something of a chicken connoisseur. If he has the time to spare he’ll wait for chicken at Romados. But when pressed, Coco Rico, with its speedy service, is not a bad second choice. “If you want to get your chicken fast, then probably Coco Rico is the way to go,” he says.
At $8.99 per chicken, Coco Rico is the only restaurant in the Plateau where you can get two whole chickens for less than 20 bucks.
Walking north on St. Laurent from Coco Rico and turning left on Rachel, one will soon come across Rotisserie Portugalia – if you can find it, that is. A sign above the door simply reads “restaurant,” and I had to double-check the address to make sure that I was at the right place.
Once inside, patrons are greeted by a small counter top, a single table, and the restaurant’s owner, José Lopes, methodically flipping chicken on a small barbecue.
Lopes doesn’t speak much English, but his nephew Nelson was kind enough to answer my questions. According to Nelson, costumers need to place chicken orders at least four hours in advance during the week and 24 hours in advance on the weekends.
When I placed my order for the next day, Nelson warned me that it might not be ready on time. “Don’t expect it to be ready at seven,” he said, explaining that sometimes things come up and recounting a story about one time when the restaurant suddenly and inexplicably filled with smoke.
“We are the exact opposite of McDonald’s,” says Nelson. “You don’t get a smile, but you leave with good food.” And good food it is. What sets Portugalia apart from the rest is its marinade. All the chicken is marinated for at least 20 minutes before being put on the grill. This gives the chicken a real “piquant” flavour that simply can’t be matched.
At $11 for a whole chicken, with the risk that it might not be ready on time, Portugalia might just be the best the Plateau has to offer.