IT PAINS ME to write a negative review of ChkChk—but not as much as it pained me to have a full meal there.
Why the anguish? Later this month, anti-gay hatemonger Chick-fil-A will infiltrate Hillsboro with the opening of the first of a dozen planned new restaurants in the Portland area. ChkChk on NW 23rd, on the other hand, has its heart in the very best of places.
ChkChk "aims to reclaim the chicken sandwich from a fast food industry riddled with questionable sourcing and dominated by national chains who champion regressive social agendas," its website says. Restaurateurs Jessica and Aaron Grimmer—also of the Picnic House, Barlow, and High Noon—promise to donate five percent of ChkChk's profits to Portland's Q Center. The chicken is sourced from Draper Valley and Cascade Valley farms.
For those reasons, I'll happily hand over $7 for a chicken sandwich similar to the one I can get for $1.29 at Carl's Jr. But it has to taste at least marginally better than the fast food version—and that's where ChkChk needs work.
ChkChk has a streamlined menu of fried chicken sandwiches, a chickpea sandwich, mac 'n' cheese, salad, soup, and waffle fries. Because of the simplicity, its few flaws are fatal.
The main problem with everything is the seasoning. The ChkChk chicken sandwich ($7) comes in a regular and (very unspicy) spicy version. Individually, the ingredients sound good: a house-made bun reminiscent of brioche, a pickle infused with white truffle for "slightly sweet, rich flavor," lettuce, house sauce, and chicken breaded with a secret blend of spices that includes a dash of sugar. Together, those sweet elements form the sweetest savory sandwich I've ever had. Somewhere, the sugar's gotta come down a few notches (my vote is from the chicken).
Over two visits, the mac 'n' cheese ($6) was soupy, and the white cheddar sauce needed salt, while the bread crumbs on top and green onions provided the only textural relief. Fries are featured both plain ($2) and as the base of the Southern Fries ($7), which have the sweet chicken, the sweet truffle pickles, and house sauce.
On our visits, the only thing fried to order was the chickpea patty. The fries rested in a bowl. The chicken waited, precooked and already sliced, ready to be assembled at the counter and to arrive quickly but rather un-juicily at our picnic table in the dining room. The chickpea sandwich ($7) arrived after we were nearly done with the rest of our meal. The patty was crispy and held together nicely, but lacked texture and salt.
ChkChk is struggling with delivering this "fast food" sandwich lickety-split (early reviews from the Yelp masses complained about wait times), while also preserving quality. "We do our best to fry our chicken and waffle fries to order," the owners said in an email. "Obviously when it's slammed we've got a whole bunch of chicken, chickpea (now vegan!), and fries in the fryer at all times, and we have systems in place to maintain the freshness of the product during slower times." It's very obviously a work in progress.
Considering the Grimmers are also behind high-end cocktail bar Barlow, it's nice to see their house boozy soda pops ($7), like the Peachpit Pop, with Campari, vermouth, and peach brandy. Beer on draft and non-alcoholic sodas round out the drink options.
Perhaps due to ChkChk's affinity for sugar, desserts were my favorite part of the menu, featuring Funfetti snack cakes in the fashion of a Twinkie and the insanely delicious Chix Bar. A spin on the Twix, the Chix Bar is a hefty half-inch-thick shortbread cookie with a very buttery caramel layer, coated in milk chocolate ($2.50). I'll probably stop by just for that next time I'm on NW 23rd.
ChkChk joins a tough market in Portland to crack: high-end fast casual. They can certainly take a cue from hitmakers Micah Camden and Katie Poppe. While their Little Big Burger and Blue Star Donuts concepts have gone bonanza, their Son of a Biscuit fried chicken shop on SE Division and Hop Dog on SW 12th both closed in the last six months.
As for ChkChk and their charitable donations, good meat sourcing, and great dessert making, I truly wish them the best of luck (cluck?).
1305 NW 23rd
Open daily 11 am-10 pm. Available for delivery through Caviar.