Consider the chicken. Once a delicacy more highly prized than lobster, it’s now the centerpiece of most weeknight family dinner tables. It can be baked, broiled, fricasseed, flash fried, batter fried, brined and fried, grilled, put in a pit, put in a pot. It can be long simmered with wine or tossed on the grill with barbecue sauce. It can be boiled to extract its broth for the world’s most famous medicine, chicken soup. Or it can be humiliatingly mashed up into chicken tenders. Plus, the chicken gives us eggs, good for scrambling, baking, frying — OK, I’ll stop.
The modern chicken is generally believed to be the descendant of the red junglefowl, a bird that still runs wild in most of Southeast Asia, crossbred with the grey junglefowl. This occurred around 8,000 years ago. So if it weren’t for the clever domesticating people of Asia, we probably wouldn’t have Kentucky Fried Chicken today.
It seems fitting then, that the two people who know Southeast Asian food best in this town, owners of Abricott and Daisy Mint restaurants, John and Jo Wee, would take on the chicken.
Fig Sprout is a new roast chicken restaurant suitable for casual lunches and quick meals to go. It would be nice to report that the chicken is wildly different and unique, but that would be untrue. The chicken at Fig Sprout takes the bird back to its simple roots. First off, it’s free-range and antibiotic-free. The color of the finished bird is practically beige with just a tinge of gold. It is surprisingly devoid of burnt or brown bits. There’s no batter or glaze. It almost looks undercooked. But it isn’t. It’s carefully and perfectly roasted.
After piercing the thin veneer of crackly skin, the flesh is juicy, succulent and viscous on the fingers. You’ll want to use your fingers to pull the flesh off the bone and dip the hunk into one of the tiny pots of Thai green or red sauce. Both the mint and the chili garlic versions are sweet and of a thinned jelly consistency. I yearned for a version with spice or vinegar or salt, but I learned to love the sweet stuff.
Though the chicken is the main act on the Fig Sprout stage, the true strength of this production lies in the supporting cast of colorful characters: The Sides.
Imagine that you’ve been charged with the task of bringing home Tuesday night dinner for the family. “Roast chicken,” you conclude. Forget the grocery store with its French bread and Caesar salad accompaniments. Fig Sprout has great people-pleasing sides that may cost a little more but are infinitely more healthful and spirit-lifting, not to mention tasty.
The prettiest side is probably the multicolored corn salad. With red pepper, cilantro and red onion, this one would disappear first at a potluck. The roasted potatoes and carrots are wonderful. Here’s where you get your roasted, herby, slightly burnt bits. The house slaw with long, thin strands of cabbage and snap peas has a unique Asian dressing (is that lemongrass in there?). The pasta salad was my son’s fave with fusilli, cherry tomatoes, spinach and a really good lemon-basil dressing. My favorite was the ratatouille with big soft chunks of eggplant and zucchini. You know it’s going to be good when they have to pull the lid off a well-used Le Creuset Dutch oven.
Vegan options are the bay leaf-scented curry rice with crispy onion, chunky green apple and beet salad, and the sweet corn salad mentioned above. Finally there’s butternut squash puree with sage and browned butter and curry chicken salad.
You don’t have to take my word for how tasty the sides are. Just pop into Fig Sprout and they’ll happily give you a complimentary plate with samples of all the sides so you can decide for yourself. Chickens are available quarter size or half size, with or without sides. If you go for the family meal, I suggest the half-chicken with two sides ($18.50), plus another trio of sides for $10. Just be sure to pick up your meal before closing time at 7:30 p.m.
The selection of soft drinks is fun and out of the ordinary too. Mexican sodas, lotus root ice tea and my favorite, rose oolong unsweetened iced tea, which comes with free refills.
With a location catty-corner to Stats and its arcade of shops, Fig Sprout is centrally located for Old Pasadena workers and walkers. Counter service, decent parking, casual tables and wonderfully kooky illustrations of chickens all over the walls makes Fig Sprout an easy in, easy to be at, easy out cafe.
John and Jo Wee have filled a niche in the Old Pasadena area that I didn’t even realize needed to be filled. Without a grocery store nearby, where can residents and workers get a simple, healthy, moderately priced weekday meal? With its inspired collection of supporting sides and salads, you’ll find it at Fig Sprout.
So why cross the road for the chicken?
To get to the other sides.
63 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena| (626) 219-6936| No Alcohol/Major Cards