In the acclaimed 2012 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, sushi chef Jiro Ono reflected on how he became one of the best in the world: Over time, he pared away appetizers and other distractions from his true love — sushi. His philosophy and methods embody the tenets of Japanese cooking: cleanliness, minimalism, using only a few ingredients but using and preparing them right. "Ultimate simplicity leads to purity," Jiro says.
You can find a similar ethos on Woodland Avenue in the Central neighborhood at the Crispy Chick, a new fast-food restaurant that serves only one entree: chicken tenders. They are some of the best tenders you'll have the pleasure of enjoying in Cleveland. They arrive fresh and hot on a bed of crinkle-cut fries accompanied by coleslaw, toasted garlic bread and a soft drink. Made without additives, the tenders are light as tempura but comforting as a fairground memory. Their "ultimate simplicity" — Crispy Chick's owner, Senayt Fekadu, seasons them with fewer than five ingredients — is inspired by Fekadu's travels to Japan and her previous restaurant, Shoga.
Fekadu operated Shoga, a hibachi express restaurant, out of the Crispy Chick's building from late 2016 to the summer of 2018. "There wasn't really a healthy alternative in a neighborhood like that," Fekadu says. "I wanted to start an Asian concept with no MSG, fresh ingredients, everything made to order."
Shoga's wok-fired concept relied on too many moving parts to sustain the menu in the long term, but Fekadu noticed exceptional customer demand for their Korean-style fried wings. She decided to pivot to serving poultry. "I thought if I'm going to do a fried food concept, I still want to stick to being healthy and a good alternative. I saw that chicken tenders, which are cut from underneath the breast, are healthier than anything with a skin on it," she says.
Fekadu spent months working with a local supplier, Hillcrest Food Service, to find her preferred cut of tender. She experimented with 17 individual recipes before settling on the one she liked and opening Crispy Chick in October of this year.
Currently, Crispy Chick offers just a few variations, including a three-piece sandwich ($6.49), a four-piece entree ($6.98), and a six-piece mega meal ($10.98). Each meal is made to order, so there can be a little wait, especially at peak times. But the tenders come out piping hot, with crispy ridges, flecks of pepper and salt, and a pleasant amber hue. Though Crispy Chick's tenders are healthier than most, they lose none of their punching power.
Paying less than $7 for an ample meal that might cost more elsewhere is certainly a steal. Fekadu has faced pressure from her suppliers and colleagues to raise prices. But Fekadu — an Eritrean immigrant who paid her way through college and experienced past success owning an accounting business and a Little Caesar's franchise — has bigger dreams than pure profit. "It's not just about the money," she says. "To me, it's about providing quality food at a good price, it's about employing local kids in the area. I want the kids to see somebody that looks like them owning a business, working open to close. I'm trying to show them what it takes to succeed."
Luckily, business has been booming thus far. At any time on any day, one is likely to see a wide array of customers at the restaurant: working adults, neighborhood kids, obvious suburbanites, and Fekadu herself, charming repeat diners, inspecting each order to make sure it's presented correctly, encouraging local families to stay and eat. Like the very beginnings of a galaxy, one can sense Crispy Chick's gravity in creating a new kind of community hub.
The neighborhood still has a hard-knocks reputation, and some have approached Fekadu with the proposition to put Crispy Chick in a suburb or college town. "Sadly, not even one single person sees the vision that I see," she exhales. "I want to be in communities where other big chain companies are afraid to go, where people normally have to walk or drive far away to get a better alternative. And in being here, I want to influence minority kids, women ... I want to show everyone that this really can be done."