A wall of chilly evening air wakes me from my study coma as I exit Pasadena City College’s Shatford Library. I need a quick fix that will keep my stomach from rumbling in my three-hour-long evening class, starting in just 30 minutes. Chick-fil-A? Crowded and greasy. Panda Express? No thanks, I respect myself. I like chicken and I like Chinese food, though… If only there were something nourishing, quick and simple within walking distance.
Eureka! I see it: Cluck2Go. The glowing hen guides me to my salvation: a glorified hallway sandwiched between two home improvement galleries serving up hot and fresh chicken in many forms.
As the name suggests, Cluck2Go does a lot of business with orders for pick-up. One can sit in-store and enjoy a meal, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you, too, are a student running in for a pre-class bite. A few plastic plants and a sign reading “Chicken Lovers Parking Only” are not doing much to warm up the bright sterility and hodge-podge furniture and color scheme. While the decor manages to be simultaneously industrial and tacky, however, the environment created by staff and customers is nothing but welcoming and homey.
I had hardly opened the door when the two employees by the register greeted me with enthusiasm. Though the front counter was bustling with customers grabbing pick-up orders, the staff attended to me with incredible patience, describing every dish in detail while regulars interjected with their own recommendations. My first time around, I opted for their best-known dish: Hainan chicken and rice with mixed dark and light meat. It was sitting hot and ready in front of me in a matter of minutes.
A mouthful of rice fragrant with chicken drippings and a sip of scallion-seasoned broth induced a “Ratatouille” moment in me. You know the one — the hardened critic eats the stew, bringing on an intense bout of nostalgia. For me, it was a proverbial transportation to a street market in northern Thailand. Yummy and comforting.
Next up, a taste of the poached chicken. It should be noted that Hainan chicken is not known for its flavor, per se. It is a fairly bland dish of what is essentially boiled and chopped poultry, so texture is everything. I was informed that Cluck2Go uses fresh, never frozen chicken, which I am happy to say is apparent in their consistently juicy, tender meat. Still, Hainan chicken needs sauce to have much excitement. Luckily, the Colorado Boulevard eatery offers three: a scallion paste, a ginger chili sauce and a sweet soy sauce. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Most things I put in my mouth are purely vehicles for the real stars — sauces. This parade of toppings got me excited, of course, and I was not let down. It may not even be fair for me to comment on the ginger chili sauce, because I would inject ginger directly into my bloodstream without a second thought. I love ginger. Add a little chili? I mean, come on, of course it’s good.
As for the sweet soy sauce, I was reminded of the eel sauce so often drizzled on sushi. It made an excellent foil to the ginger chili. And last, but certainly not least, the scallion paste. Absolutely scrumptious and a shocking chartreuse, this sauce would be aesthetically and culinarily pleasing as a sandwich dressing, an accoutrement on a cheese platter, a topping for Hainan chicken, etcetera. And I want it in all these contexts. Frankly, I want it on everything.
For $8.95, I was a little surprised that all I was getting was some very straightforward chicken and rice. That is, until this one order fed me plentifully two times over. And, of course, there’s something to be said about simplicity. This food was restorative on a cold night when studying had me down. I would absolutely come back to for this guilt-free comfort food — it would really hit the spot for someone ailing, whether from illness or finals. A cooler next to the register offers prunellae (a cure-all medicinal flower) iced tea as well to wash down the healing power of this food.
And come back I did, but I wanted to branch out. Two more pre-class runs warranted an order of dry-rubbed salt and pepper wings and a yellow chicken curry with rice. The wings, which came highly recommended from a friend, were meaty and moist without being excessively greasy; again, the freshness of the chicken and expertise with which it was cooked was evident. I was disappointed to find no crispiness whatsoever to the dry-rubbed skin, but I suppose this is the price you pay for a wing so tender and succulent. And while the texture made compromises, the flavor did not. The modest title of “salt and pepper” chicken wings did not encompass the tangy hints of citrusy flavor and whisper of spice. I wasn’t sure if I loved them at first, but with each bite, the spices came together more. Each wing was better than the last. I found myself in a potato chip situation — “OK, this is the last one,” I said about all of them. What’s more is the unexpectedly tasty additions. An order of hot wings across the street at Lucky Baldwin’s might come with some sad celery and carrots that get pushed around the plate and then trashed, but the roasted bell pepper, dusting of green onions and hot pepper were delicious complements happily cleaned from my plate at Cluck2Go. Eating these wings felt indulgent, but the lethargy and regret that usually come with a treat-yo-self standard never arrived. Next time, I’m going for the saucy honey garlic wings — a customer favorite — and hoping I feel the same.
Finally, I came around a third time for some iced chrysanthemum tea and yellow chicken curry. Again, expert chicken graced this dish, which was heartier, sweeter, more viscous and heavier on the cumin than Indian or Thai curries one might be more familiar with. I was surprised to find, however, that the star of this concoction was not the chicken, but the potatoes. Never in my life have I given much thought to, let alone actively loved, potato chunks swimming unassumingly in curry. Each one was pillowy and seasoned to its core like a home fry doused in decadent goodness. The meeting of flavors and textures was reminiscent of currywurst and fries on the streets of Berlin, only better. I’m almost embarrassed to be talking this much about potatoes. Maybe I’m losing credibility as a critic here, but, to me, they deserve it.
Hearty plates, quick and friendly service and a stone’s throw from PCC, I have faith that Cluck2Go will do a bang-up business. It’s fast food that’s comforting without being too unhealthy and simple without being too bland. As Lady Liberty holds her torch to welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the glowing hen above Cluck2Go offers tired students and locals liberation via nourishment.
1771 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena | (626) 765-6674 | Major Cards/No Alcohol