On a recent muggy afternoon in Greenpoint, my “expert” understanding of fried chicken was thrown a crunchy, spicy curveball. I thought I had already found my favorite fried chicken in Brooklyn at The Commodore. I thought I knew what to expect when chicken was deemed “hot.” I was wrong on both counts.
On Greenpoint Avenue, near the waterfront, is a nondescript warehouse door painted with bright colors. Behind that door is the retro-diner Hail Mary, and it was there I tasted fried chicken unlike any I’d had before.
The Hot Fried Sasso Chicken Dinner is spicy, yes. It is crunchy too, of course. It’s presented talon-on, somewhat shockingly. But the crashing waves of flavor that hit your tongue with each bite and the juiciness of the meat is unexpected.
It’s the best new fried chicken in Brooklyn.
Hail Mary opened this past spring to significant buzz. The owners, married couple Ham and Sohla El-Waylly, worked in some big name NYC restaurants (Atera, Momofuku, Del Posto, Rotisserie Georgette, Dover) before finding the space for Hail Mary and moving from Chelsea to Greenpoint. But first, let’s talk about the bird.
While it’s prepared in the style of Nashville hot fried chicken (either doused in cayenne chili pepper oil or fried in a batter rich with cayenne; both variations come with white bread and pickles) the chili oil that slicks the pieces at Hail Mary is just one layer of flavor out of many. That what makes this chicken so exciting.
The chicken pieces are first brined in a mixture of salt, sugar and gochujang–a spicy, fermented Korean condiment. Next, they are dredged in the Hail Mary spice rub: Szechuan peppercorns, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, dried Thai bird chilis, flour and dried shiitake mushroom powder, for an umami boost.
“We wanted to coat our entire fried chicken in MSG without using MSG,” said Ham El-Waylly.
Then the bird goes into the fryer. The chicken is a slow-raised Sasso variety that’s brought to the restaurant from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania the same day that it was slaughtered. Sasso chickens are known for their thick layer of fat, which makes it perfect for roasting, and El-Waylly had found them to be great for frying, too. His oil is set to a lower temperature than is customary for frying chicken, 325 degrees, which allows the fat to render more slowly, keeping the bird moist.
When it’s finished cooking, multiple “layers” of flavorings are added, the order of which El-Waylly says is crucial. They are: salt, more Hail Mary spice rub, honey, chili oil.
Oh and the oil? It gets its spice from a 24-hour soak with Thai bird’s eye chilis.
The first thing I tasted besides the Szechuan peppercorns was the star anise. My nose tickled and my tongue twitched. My brain worked hard alongside my taste buds to identify it. When I was finally told what it was, I was floored. Szechuan peppercorns made sense–Mission Chinese Food has been doing that for years (and influenced the fried chicken at Hail Mary–Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis was another important element in their chicken education)–but star anise?
“We knew we were doing the anise and cinnamon” from the start, El-Waylly said. “It’s very polarizing, a lot of people don’t like the anise flavor.”
Regardless, it’s the most popular item on the menu.
Ham and Sohla met in New York City and moved to California after culinary school. They decided to come back to NYC and made the most of their return by making the drive something of a fried chicken pilgrimage. They ate fried chicken all along the route, and that’s when they found Gus’s. They realized whatever restaurant they opened, they would do fried chicken in the southern style. But Ham, whose parents are Egyptian and Bolivian and was raised in Qatar, and Sohla, raised in Los Angeles by Bangladeshi parents, brought their varied tastes to the dish as well.
“It has it all,” El-Waylly said, adding humbly that without the chicken, the dish would be marginal.
“Ninety percent of the battle is using a good bird,” he said.
So hit up Hail Mary for the fried chicken dinner. There are lots of other delicious and out-there variations on diner food to order too, from fried burrata (a genius take on mozzarella sticks) to a burger that drips with fat and gooey cheese. But when you see the chicken (El-Waylly delivers it to diners in a paper bucket in a grocery cart at least once a night), and you smell the heat of the spice, you won’t be able to resist. And you shouldn’t.
68 Greenpoint Ave.
$32 for a half bird / $58 for a whole, comes with sides.