Detroit’s Which Came First? presents a chicken and egg situation 

click to enlarge The Havana.

Tom Perkins

The Havana.

Chef Phill Milton has discovered how to keep fried chicken squirtingly juicy while sporting a crisp, crisp crust. For this alone he deserves high praise.

Though its name implies that Which Came First? is about the chicken and the egg, it's really the bird that's the focus here, so Milton has answered his own question.

At the walk-up, you build your own order. First choose a protein: grilled or fried chicken, breast or thigh, or a "dippy egg." Dippy means sunny-side-up in Pittsburgh, where Milton also has restaurants.

Then you decide among potato bun, salad, or wrap, and finally among accoutrements, ranging from Cuban through Italian, Chinese, Nashville hot, and "BAE," which is bacon, avocado, egg.

I couldn't imagine a soft egg sitting on the Chinese-influenced sandwich, the General, nor on the Italian one with marinara. You can do it, but, Milton says, the staff would probably try to steer you away. So, yeah, this is really a chicken place.

Milton's fried chicken is first marinated in pickle juice and other seasonings for up to three hours; "any more and it messes with the texture." Then it's dredged in rice flour, all-purpose flour, cornstarch, and house seasonings, and allowed to sit for 24 hours: "the longer the dredge is pressed, the better it adheres and the crispier it comes out."

It works, producing a thick and shaggy crust around meat with a lush mouth-feel. And the many items you can pile on top are generally good, too.

I found the potato bun collapsible and forgettable, OK for holding stuff together but not a player in its own right. (Most people are quite accepting of this role; witness the billions of tasteless hamburger buns consumed annually.) The salad of mixed greens provided just as good a platform for the other ingredients.

My favorite sandwich was the Havana, which had plenty going on before the giant chicken thigh was added: ham, roast pork, lots of melted Swiss, housemade pickles, some sinus-clearing untraditional Dijonnaise. Also good was the BAE, helped by the bacon. The General was less successful, with Kewpie mayo, bits of mandarin orange and sweet General Tso sauce, and not much of a Chinese feel. The Gabagool (New Jersey for capicola) worked pretty well as a salad, with warm chicken and cold marinara, capicola, soppressata, and shredded mozzarella (not fresh mozzarella as advertised).

I didn't try the Nashville, as its cousin had burned my mouth at Milton's other restaurant in Fort Street Galley, Table.

Readers, can I put in a general plug here for the thigh, not the breast? Somehow the breast became associated in American minds with higher class and perversely commands a higher price in the supermarket. The thigh has far more flavor and umami, and it's so easy for a breast to dry out in less skilled hands than Milton's. You may have been reflexively ordering breasts for years, the same way you get white rice instead of brown (similar taste differential). Again, I know that many people actually prefer their food with less flavor, but if you're not one of them, ask for the thigh.

As to side dishes, a huge $6 bowl of mac and cheese is one of the restaurant's most popular items. It's made with Velveeta ("an ode to growing up"), smoked Gouda, cheddar, and mozzarella, and it's sharp and buttery, with visible pepper. It's a meal in itself, and I happily told the staff it was the best mac and cheese I'd had all year.

Deviled eggs are not a bargain at $5 for five halves. Ours were advertised as "Nashville spice" but were far sweeter than hot. Other sides are tenders, onion rings, and Nashville hot poutine with fried curds and "cheese gravy" — the same sauce as the mac and cheese. For brunch, find pricey dishes like Nutella-stuffed French toast and Georgia Benedict with fried green tomatoes. For $5 happy hour, it's fried pickles, mac and cheese tossed with buffalo tenders, Nashville sliders, or wings.

The Fort Street Galley food court where Which Came First? operates has seen a bunch of restaurants come and go in the year it's been open; only one of the originals, Isla, which is Filipino, is still operating. But that was the plan: the Galley was meant to be an incubator for four new places at a time to try their wings before the owners moved on to their own spots.

On a late December Saturday evening, the whole room was packed and we waited 41 minutes for our chicken. A week later on a snowy Sunday night: empty. Milton says he's found busy and slow times totally unpredictable. But though some Galley restaurants have died prematurely, an incubator for newborn chicks is still a good idea.

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