March 12, 2008

The Free Sample Chicken War

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In our very own Shops at Ithaca Mall, a battle rages at the food court. If you frequent the mall as often as I do (three times a month or more) you likely already know the two biggest players in the free sample chicken war. If you don’t, allow me to introduce the two titans of the culinary kingdom, the Easy Wok and the Cajun Café Grill. Now these restaurants sell chicken for 12+ hours a day, seven days a week, 360+ days a year. If the mall is open, they are offering chicken for sale. You think Scarface knew how to hustle? Try slinging fried chicken on a toothpick for thousands of hours a year and get back to me.
On the surface, the two restaurants seem extremely similar. But, dear reader, appearances can be deceiving. Both offer delectably flavored fried chicken with a choice of two traditional Chinese sides. Both offer fried rice, lo mien, sautéed string beans in soy sauce and roasted potatoes. In fact, the two restaurants appear so similar that until recently I thought they shared a kitchen and chef. But that was before I went the extra mile for The Sun and interviewed the ladies that dependably peddle free samples of delicious chicken to me every time I go to the mall.
While the chicken war may seem cordial and polite, the two restaurants stare down at each other like the characters in Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book. (It’s my second favorite children’s book, in which Yooks and Zooks fight over which side is appropriate to butter your toast on. I would have settled the dispute in five seconds: both sides.)
My favorite of the two restaurants is clearly the Cajun Café Grill. Owned and operated by King and her husband for over 14 years, the Cajun Café not only provides superior food, but also superior customer service. You see, I eat at the Cajun Café enough that King knows me. She also knows my friend Brett. She knows our order, she knows where we go to school, and I swear to god one time she said, “Where have you been? We missed you.” Does that mean she won’t offer us free samples? Far from it, she fights for our business every single time. She was also clearly the more co-operative of the two interviewees. Here are some of her thoughts on the fried food feud:
For an example of the low-brow business tactics King has observed, the Easy Wok stole some of her menu items from the Cajun Café Grill. Macaroni and cheese? First appeared at the Grill. Ditto for roasted potatoes. The manager of the Wok was not available for comment, but King insists that her recipes were stolen. Thankfully, however, the one shining crown jewel of the Grill has not been stolen: Bourbon chicken.
The only thing that truly distinguishes the Cajun Café Grill from your average Chinese restaurant is the bourbon chicken. Though the sign above the store front features a saxophone superimposed on the state of Louisiana, literally every other characteristic of the Grill is distinctly Chinese. They have duck sauce, they have chopsticks, they have egg rolls. Heck, King and her husband are Chinese! But the bourbon chicken makes the whole shebang legit. You see two adjacent Chinese restaurants? I see a sub-par national chain Chinese restaurant next to the best Chinese-Cajun fusion north of the Mason-Dixon Line!
The delectability of the Bourbon chicken is why King offers it to customers first. “Hook them with the bourbon, and then get them to pick two side dishes,” could be the Grill’s motto. But, the smart sample taster will sample both restaurants’ fares. If you like, you can bounce back and forth until you are full. (King is more tolerant of this behavior than the ladies at the Wok.)
Eat enough chicken, and King will become a part of every mall visit. Just need some batteries from Target? Why not stop by and see King? Purchasing a hilarious gift for your little at Spencer Gifts? Take some time for some free bourbon chicken and a friendly hello. You won’t regret it. And in case you were wondering what my official order is: sesame chicken with lo mien and green beans. A large diet Coke is expensive, but if you ask politely they’ll give you free refills.