The Cardinal restaurant in the East Village is advertised as a Southern BBQ joint, but it's really all about the fried chicken. When my dinner date who is usually the pinnacle of decorum started ignoring my near hysterical requests to share as he blissfully gnawed away at chicken bones with his eyes closed you know it really IS finger lickin' good, but let's start at the beginning shall we?
I was craving fried chicken and heard good things about The Cardinal and their propensity for healthy portions. I texted my date around 2:30 p.m. and told him to stop eating for the rest of the day and I had a surprise in store. I also started sending him subconscious messages to not order the fried chicken because I knew I wanted it all to myself.
We arrived at the restaurant around 7:30 p.m. with no reservation, but luckily we didn't need one as a big crowd hadn't trickled in yet. We asked to be seated downstairs since the semi-open upstairs space didn't seem like a good idea on a cold Friday night and we were escorted downstairs to an intimate side table for two. My date and I both admired the organic feeling of the space with it's exposed wooden ceiling and warm lighting. What was not so great was our proxmity to the loud speaker blasting 70's soul music and the sole bathroom in the corner, but we came for the food and we were ready to devour.
Our waiter tried to entice us with descriptions of the night's specials – organic carrots grown from the neighborhood sauteed in butter and I think he mentioned something about cauliflower too, but I was focused on all things chicken. My date ordered the BBQ plate with housemade hot links, ribs and brisket just like I wanted him to and I of course ordered the fried chicken! I was a bit dismayed that I couldn't choose my pieces (perhaps I'm spoilt by that other Southern chicken joint in the West Village) but I soldered on with the promise of a succulent, breast, thigh and leg. Our mulitude of sides included fried okra, baked beans, macaroni and cheese and devilled eggs.
As we patiently waited for our food over a shared Captain Laurence beer I was clearing the table for my fried chicken essentials; honey, hot sauce and BBQ sauce which were provided to me in abundance. The waiter informed us there were three types of BBQ sauces – mustard-based, tomato-based and vinegar-based, all housemade. My date's BBQ plate came first along with his sides, the macaroni and cheese and devilled eggs. I picked at his mac and cheese which was the perfect marriage of gooey and crispy and the devilled eggs topped with bacon was able to distract my appetite for at least a few seconds with its well seasoned filling. I also tasted one of my date's hot links to which I exclaimed, "This tastes like the best Slim Jim ever!"
Then finally it came...the chicken to end all chickens, it was golden, it was crispy, it was huge! I didn't even know how to manoeuver around the table with our huge plates and 4 sides, yet somehow I managed to delay my gratification by attacking the okra first which was ok. I think it needed a little salt, but it tasted good with a combination of the 3 BBQ sauces. I picked up my chicken ready to drown it in sauce, but to my surprise the chicken needed nothing. It was perfectly seasoned, juicy and tender. The skin was flavorful and stayed crispy throughout the entire meal. I didn't reach for the Tabasco bottle, not once.
I was trying to be polite by offering my date my chicken breast to cut for me while I ate some of his baked beans which were hearty and not too sweet and could have been a meal all by itself. He started cutting, then realized it was a futile task since the table was so small so he picked up the chicken and never put it down. "Honey...honey...we're supposed to be sharing." I had lost him, I couldn't blame him. I picked up his ribs which were dry rubbed and delicious, the brisket was also quite memorable, but unfortunately played second fiddle to the Almighty chicken.
I stared at the graveyard of bones my date somehow managed to pile neatly in the corner of his palte amidst his demolition of my dinner and I instantly knew two things that I loved him and I would have to come back to this place...alone.