Lace up your sneakers and join the Sneaker Soiree, Girls on the Run of Middle Tennessee’s fundraising event at Rocketown on October 19, 2017. A night of drinks and
As proud residents of Music City, some of us were pretty indignant when KFC came up with a “training wheels” version of our famous hot chicken and rolled it out to select locations. Perhaps revenge is a dish best served hot in the form of a new local example of spicy KFC—in this case, the Korean fried chicken at The Birdhouse in East Nashville. Long an underground favorite of chefs and food fans, Korean fried chicken differentiates itself from the traditional Southern staple with its thin crispy crust and tangy glaze made using Gochujang, sort of a Seoul version of sriracha.
The brainchild of Chris Futrell and Casey Carstens, two longtime stalwarts in various Nashville kitchens, The Birdhouse occupies a tiny space on McFerrin Avenue, which the partners found before they came up with a concept.
“We looked all over town,” recalls Futrell. “We don’t go into a space with a concept; we let it speak to us.”
The building, previously home to Carol Ann’s BBQ, is little more than a cinder-block hut with a cramped kitchen, a window for ordering and receiving your dish, and a few picnic tables. But it’s the perfect environment for a genuine chicken shack.
“I’ve had Korean fried chicken on the brain since I ate at Crisp in Chicago last year,” Futrell explains. “As soon as we saw this place, I knew we could fill a niche in the market for a great casual fried chicken restaurant, and I started testing recipes.”
The process of making Korean chicken is extremely time- and labor-intensive.
“It’s all about the crust and the sauce,” says Futrell. “I’ve had to educate the customers that it’s like barbecue in that it takes eight to 12 hours to make, so if we run out, we can’t just whip up another batch.”
Fortunately, the menu at The Birdhouse has enough variety to satisfy a whole group of customers, even if the kitchen is short on birds. Diners can order fried chicken tenders, wings, or drumsticks along with a choice of sauces including Gochugaru house sauce, sweet soy/garlic, Korean BBQ, buffalo, or hot—and there’s plenty more on offer. The bibimbap rice bowl is particularly popular, topped with delightfully funky kimchi greens, carrots, sprouts, pickled onions, and cucumbers along with a choice of protein (smoked chicken or beef brisket, fried chicken, or tofu) and topped with house sauce.
The brisket is a great entrée, too: It’s smoked with hickory and then braised in Korean-style barbecue sauce until fall-apart tender. Lettuce wraps and smoked chicken complete the tight roster of main dishes, but you could make a meal just from the side dishes if you wanted, especially the addictive crispy French fries seasoned with a generous shake of peppery togarashi.
Because the majority of the food at The Birdhouse is intended for carryout, service is prompt—and Futrell is fine with making simpler fare, especially since he’s not taking any shortcuts. Nothing comes out of a can and everything is prepared fresh daily because they don’t have room for a walk-in, just a few residential refrigerators to keep the fresh ingredients cool during preparation and service. Futrell realizes that The Birdhouse is indeed a rare bird on his side of the Cumberland River.
“We don’t claim to be authentic, but my partner’s wife is Korean and helped a lot in developing the recipes,” he says. “We don’t want to appropriate anybody’s culture, but we do want to respect it.”
Not to mention, it’s a heckuva lot better than fast food hot chicken.
726 McFerrin Ave., 615-928-8118; birdhousenashville.com
Photos by Jacob Blount.