Honeymoon Chicken Review: Rob Sonderman aims high and hits his targets

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When Rob Sonderman, the guy you probably know best as the pit master behind Federalist Pig, and his boss Steve Salis decided to get into the chicken business, they didn’t set themselves modest goals. They targeted the Big Daddy: They wanted to compete with Popeyes on both quality and price, which is a bit like having your corner bookstore saying it’s going to take on Amazon.

The context is important, of course: Sonderman and Salis talked big before the coronavirus. Before the pandemic disrupted the nation’s supply lines and exposed its weaknesses. Before an outbreak of bird flu sent chicken prices skyrocketing. Before a war in Ukraine, the price at the pump rose. Before inflation increased the cost of everything. Before all of this, Sonderman and Salis had a plan to at least locally beat Popeyes by his own means.

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By the time their retro-chic Honeymoon Chicken opened in January, the world had changed dramatically. Before the store served its first bucket, Sonderman warned everyone that they might have to adjust prices on opening-day menus. Six months into its existence, Honeymoon has twice increased the price of certain items. A two-piece combination of breast, wing, and butter roll is now $9, up two and a half dollars since the store debuted. An eight-piece bucket is up $5 (to $26) over the same period.

“It sucks when you get your ass kicked every day,” says Sonderman, noting that sales have nearly doubled. “Then you look at the income statement at the end of the month and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, we lost money after making as many sales as we did.'”

I bring up these issues to underscore a few points: while aiming to compete with a national chain that’s reaping the benefits of economies of scale is admirable, if not downright insane, we’ve seen what the pursuit of cheap chicken can do next below can mean production chain. But more importantly, Honeymoon Chicken doesn’t have to go that route. There’s a bankable name behind the fledgling brand, and I’m not talking about Salis, who’s always trying to blow up the restaurant industry’s business-as-usual mentality. I’m talking about Sonderman, just as trustworthy a chef as we have in Washington.

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People will pay to eat Sonderman’s food. I suspect they’ll spend more on Honeymoon than they do on Popeyes. I know I will, even with the inconsistencies I encountered on Honeymoon, because Sonderman has generated a significant amount of goodwill from customers dating back to his DCity Smokehouse days. The guy is money, and Honeymoon provides even more proof of that.

If Popeyes is Louisiana cuisine with its roots in Cajun country, then Honeymoon Chicken has set up camp alongside America’s apiaries. The “honey” in Honeymoon is no coincidence. The restaurant, tucked away in the former Slim’s Diner in Petworth (and stationed in the Ensemble Kitchen in Bethesda), incorporates the nectar into many dishes, starting with its signature bird.

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The irony, if that’s the right word, is that Honeymoon’s Chicken is cooked in a quick fryer, the range with the long, colorful history at KFC, not Popeye’s. But the fryer isn’t why Honeymoon’s Chicken has garnered so much attention in such a short space of time, including, I should point out, a Bib Gourmand nod from those stuffed shirts at Michelin. Or not them sole Reason.

Sonderman has created an idiosyncratic recipe, one that builds on the long history of fried chicken, but also one that bears the chef’s fingerprints throughout. His chicken starts with a 24-hour brine in a slurry of pickle juice and seasoned flour. Technique is important: It helps keep the fried coating — a concoction of flour, cornstarch, smoked paprika, chipotle powder, and more — from sliding off the chicken like sheets of ice off a warm roof. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like chasing bird bites with the broken pieces of dough strewn across my plate like I’m piecing together deconstructed fried chicken.

When ordering bone-in or tender chicken (called “bites” here), you have your choice of how to finish the chicken: sprinkled with the original honey dust mix (or flavorful honey dust) or drizzled with hot honey. Whatever you choose, you’ll find your chicken is transported to a world created by Sonderman. You’ll know it from his work at Federalist Pig: it’s a sizzling environment where hot spices — black pepper, granulated garlic, chilli powder — seek to dominate the discourse against the collective voice of softer, sweeter, sometimes sour ingredients. In this case, honey, whether in dehydrated or viscous form, provides much of the counterbalance, and it’s the underlying tension/harmony between these flavors that makes Sonderman’s meal so memorable.

Every chicken order comes with at least one bun, a cute, springy thing whose browned top is brushed with a mixture of melted butter and honey, then sprinkled with chives and large flakes of sea salt. How anyone can eat just one is beyond me. If I had a stack next to me I would pop them like M&Ms.

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Honeymoon has created a fried chicken sandwich for every honey application, whether dust or dip. The signature sandwich is a bite of dusted chicken breast, extra crispy and slightly spicy, whose honeyed elements are lost between the bun and sides.

My favorite sandwich is the hot honey-dipped sandwich, a gooey, two-handed freak with tangy pickles, crunchy onions, and more to say than any other fried chicken sandwich on the market. The Honey Garlic Chicken Banh Mi is a notable failure, a flavorful combination whose ingredients are difficult to pin together and only vaguely match Vietnamese flavors. The vegetable sandwich, in which a salty and steroidal oyster mushroom replaces the bird, just drives me nuts.

Further down the menu, I’m into fried chicken poutine with herb sauce, a dish that cleverly redefines a fry basket. To counteract the grease, try the coleslaw with blue cheese or the watermelon feta and mint salad, two side dishes that will delight the palate and ease your conscience. After all that fried food, the last thing you might want is a flaky hand pie made exclusively for Honeymoon Chicken by the pastry chef at sister operations Ted’s Bulletin and Sidekick Bakery, but then take a bite out of the cherry-filled turnover and you can just thinking: can I have another one?

4201 Georgia Avenue NW, 202-983-5010. Much of the menu is also available from Ensemble Kitchen, 4856 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, Maryland. honeymoonchicken.com.

Hours: Petworth: Monday to Friday 11am to 10pm; 10am to 10pm Saturday; 10am to 9pm Sunday. Bethesda: 11:00 am to 9:00 pm Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday; 11am to 10pm Friday and Saturday; Closed on Mondays.

Next subway: Petworth: Georgia Ave.-Petworth train station, half a mile walk from the restaurant. Bethesda: Bethesda train station, 800 meters walk from the kitchen.

Prices: $3 to $26 for all items on the menu.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/food/2022/07/05/honeymoon-chicken-review/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_lifestyle Honeymoon Chicken Review: Rob Sonderman aims high and hits his targets

Chris Estrada

Chris Estrada is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Chris Estrada joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: chrisestrada@24ssports.com.

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