I’ll just come right out and say it: Big J’s Chicken Shack on Thompson’s Point is one of the best casual spots to open in Portland in a long time.
I think about going there much more often than I actually do because I can hear my hips screaming, “Moderation!” every time the thought of fried chicken pecks its way into my thought bubble. But it is so worth it.
The food is made with care, the prices are reasonable and the staff works as hard and as fast as they can to get orders out when the tiny restaurant is packed with tourists, as it was when it first opened this summer.
Big J’s is, as the name tells you, the latest project from Jason Loring and his partners. If you’re one of those people who’s turned off by the over-the-top burgers at Nosh, one of Loring’s other restaurants, don’t let that keep you from the chicken shack. The crispy fried chicken won’t bust your gut like one of those big Nosh burgers between two “buns” of mac-and-cheese.
Big J’s actually does chicken three ways. I prefer the traditional style because I can’t handle a lot of spice, and the traditional is most like the southern fried chicken that came out of my mother’s cast iron skillet. But if you like heat, try the trendy Nashville Hot version, which is made with so much cayenne they serve it with rubber gloves. For something in between, try the “Portland Hot.” All three are made with brined chicken that’s been soaked in buttermilk to keep it tender and moist. The coating is crispy and seasoned just right.
A two-piece serving of chicken — one piece white meat, the other dark meat — costs $9 and is called the “Half ‘n Half.” Four pieces is a “Single Wide” ($16) and eight pieces is a “Double Wide” ($30). All of these options come with either white bread or cheddar chive biscuits made by Robinhood Meetinghouse. I’ve long been a fan of Robinhood biscuits, so let me give you a friendly warning: just one has 250 calories. I’m not telling you that to scare you away. It’s worth it, just be careful not to go crazy or you could quickly eat a whole day’s worth of calories in one sitting.
So far, I’ve only tried the regular fried chicken because I like it so much, but Big J’s also sells chicken tenders, chicken and waffles and chicken sandwiches. The Mugsy sandwich ($10), served on brioche, is made with fried or grilled chicken, smoked bacon, American cheese, roasted red pepper relish, lettuce and mayo.
The sides at Big J’s are not just afterthoughts. The doctored-up B&M baked beans are some of the best that I’ve had at a casual restaurant, and the Tijuana corn is full of flavor. Rebecca Ambrosi, one of the chefs who helped Loring open his tiki bar, Rhum, and who helped develop the menu at Big J’s, told me the corn is covered with a mayo sauce and cilantro, honey, lime juice, pecorino and a little chile for heat. Other choices include a decent, but unremarkable mac-and-cheese and brussels and kohlrabi slaw.
Big J’s does not serve alcohol, but it’s BYOB. If you want a beer with your chicken, just go next door to Bissell Brothers’ tap room, where there’s a fried chicken ordering window conveniently located between the two businesses. Cellardoor Winery and Stroudwater Distillery are also nearby.
No need to squawk about the lack of good fried chicken in this town anymore. Big J’s is king of the roost.
WHERE: 4 Thompson’s Point Road, Portland, 747-4005 and bigjschicken.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
WAIT: To avoid any wait, order ahead online and you’ll get a text when your order is ready to be picked up.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes