(Tendon First Look, we pay a quick visit to a new restaurant or bar in Central New York to give readers an idea of what to expect. Our food critics might visit these places eventually and give us their take, but we want to highlight what’s new in our area. If you know of a new place, send an email to email@example.com or call/text me at 315-382-1984. If I take your suggestion, I just might buy you a meal.)
Syracuse, NY — Word spread quickly following a social media post back on July 22: The kitchen inside Chadwick’s Sports Bar & Grill in Eastwood would soon be available for lease.
That meant SuSu Kitchen was shutting down. Su Su and her husband Henry, who had served their take on Americanized Chinese food from the galley-style kitchen for the past two years, were retiring to Florida. Their business exploded last winter when this hidden gem of Central New York became not so hidden.
“This bar absolutely blew up when people read about SuSu. It was insane. There’ll be people waiting an hour or more at this bar for Chinese food,” said bartender Nicole Henry. “A lot of hearts were broken when they left.”
Well, CNY, meet Steve Samuels. He and his KrunchBird sandwich are here to mend our tattered tickers.
He saw Chadwick’s post looking for someone to invest $2,100 per month (utilities included) for a kitchen. Steve messaged Chadwick’s within the hour. Two days later, he brought some ingredients to this bar and did an onsite tasting. Two days later, he signed the lease.
“I’ve made other people rich over the years. It’s about time I do it for myself,” he said one morning last week while preparing for the night’s bar crowd. “This is fun food. It’s not haute cuisine. Our eating habits have moved past that, other than special occasions.”
Steve spent 35-plus years in some of Central New York’s top kitchens: Scotch & Sirloin, Pascale’s and Lemon Grass. Most recently, he helped start Original Grain in downtown Syracuse. Not long after that he cooked for XO Taco, Alto Cinco and its downtown sibling Otro Cinco. At each stop, Steve picked up a new technique, a new idea or a new flavor combination that he’d apply at his next destination.
At the onset of the second Covid-driven restaurant shutdown, Steve formed 5Star Chef catering and rented kitchen space in the former Assumption Academy on the city’s North Side. He prepared daily meals for dozens of customers who didn’t want to cook for themselves.
During those lonely days in an old Catholic school cafeteria, Steve harvested the memories he had stashed from other kitchens and turned them into unique sauces, marinades and breadings.
That brings us back to the late summer day when Steve brought his obsession with simplicity and freshness to Chadwick’s on James Street.
The only thing Steve doesn’t make here, or at his kitchen in Assumption, are the rolls. Each piece of chicken — a hefty breast, thick tender or plump wing — is coated with its own sweet, savory or hot sauce. It’s served with its own mustard or blue cheese dressing. Some come with their own jarred pickles.
So far, Chadwick’s regulars seem to like it. At an “extra soft” opening two weeks ago announced in a subtle Facebook message, Steve sold all 40 of his KrunchBird sandwiches within two hours. The next morning, he got to the bar at 10 am to prepare twice as many sandwiches.
“Yes, I sold out … again,” he said. “People were in line ordering six at a time. We ran out of 80 sandwiches by 6:30.”
Now eat their food at the bar, to the delight of bartender Nicole and co-owner Steve DeStefano. A few got their food to go, many of whom raved on social media about how crispy the sandwich was after the drive home. (More on that below.)
Take a look inside his kitchen as he prepares our meal before we can finish our second $5.50 special “bigass” Modelo lager Nicole just poured:
You must try …
The KrunchBird ($13): This is the signature fried chicken sandwich behind Steve’s concept. Beware, though, this is unlike the heavily breaded chicken sandwiches you get from fast-food restaurants or even nice local spots.
For one thing, the chicken isn’t pre-cut, pre-seasoned or pre-anything. Steve cuts his own chicken breasts, and he pounds them individually before they ever see a marinade or seasoning.
The 6- or 7- or 8-ounce breasts brine in buttermilk and spices for eight hours. Steve starts that every morning. When he returns to Chadwick’s before happy hour, he dredges each piece of meat through a bowl of flour and tapioca starch. To raise the Ph balance, he adds a touch of cream of tartar to the mix. That ultimately helps the breading stick to the chicken and stay crisp in a takeout box. The chicken then goes back into the refrigerator for an hour.
“That took months to perfect,” he said. “It’s one thing to have it perfectly crisp out of the fryer. It’s another to have it perfectly crisp after traveling in a cardboard or plastic box.”
As the breasts do laps in fryer oil for about 12 minutes, Steve’s employees dress the brioche rolls with his chipotle mayonnaise, coleslaw and pickles.
The sandwich is served with lightly salted crinkle-cut fries that had been cooked in a separate fryer.
The KrunchBird lives up to its name. It could even be called the ExtraKrunchBird. The chilled slaw and pickles provide that extra crunch, but yes, the chicken is crunchy.
The Royal Burger ($13): Steve named this showpiece after his 7-year-old son, Royal Julius Samuels. The kid enjoys his father’s chicken sandwich, his tenders, his wings and pretty much anything else he makes. Royal absolutely adores Dad’s smashburger.
You’d never think such a delicious burger could be so simple. Watching Steve left me asking why I had invested so much time in making burgers over the years. It’s a simple mix of 80% lean beef to 20% fat gently rolled into a ball. Steve drops the ball onto the hot flattop grill, covers it with a sheet of parchment paper and squeezes it with a cast-iron press with ridges.
He dusts it with a pinch of salt and pepper (NOT much at all). He flips it once the bottom develops a brown crust, and then he dresses the top with more salt and pepper. After a minute, Steve covers it with your choice of cheese. He purposely doesn’t crown the Royal with a bowl to quicken the cheese-melting process.
“The whole idea is to touch the meat as little as possible,” he said. “How many times have you been home cooking on the grill, and you’re smashing it with a spatula, flipping it, smashing it again, flipping it again, smashing it? You end up with a dry burger. Not this one.”
Good point Steve. Simple and sweet. Royalty.
The Royal sauce, though, makes this burger special. He says it’s his version of the special sauce from a McDonald’s Big Mac, even though he claims to have never had a Big Mac. This sauce, he said, has three types of mustard among other spices and mayonnaise.
Now that the burger itself is done and sauced, Steve adds shredded romaine lettuce, a tomato slice and pickled onions.
Note: If that burger is too much or too little for you, KrunchBird lets you build your own sandwich with any vegetable, sauce or cheese he has to offer. Those start at $11.
Mango Honey Habanero wings ($14.95/dozen): Longtime customers of Chadwick’s have been eating this flavor for years. Steve had never heard of such a thing until DeStefano asked if he could keep it on the menu. The KrunchBird gave it a try, using a bottle of the premade sauce that had always coated these wings.
“I liked the contrast, but this sauce tasted like plastic,” Steve said. “I thought I could do better.”
He bought some local honey, mangoes and habanero peppers at the farmer’s market. After several tries with different heat-to-sweet ratios, Steve developed a wing he would eat himself. It was also something bartender Nicole pitched to her clients. DeStefano gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. So everyone at the bar shared my order.
These jumbo crispy wings will give your mouth a slight punch, one that will last about 15 seconds. Just dip one of the included celery or carrot sticks into Steve’s homemade blue cheese dressing while Nicole starts another Bigass Modelo.
Stop whining; they have mild wings too.
Message to 7-year-old Royal Julius Samuels: You’ve helped your father create a fantastic burger, and he’s counting on you to further the legacy. Learn from him. Take his concept and run with it.
We’ll see you in a few years doing a First Look on the opening of America’s first Royal Burger restaurant.
The venue: KrunchBird, (inside Chadwick’s Sports Bar & Grill), 2529 James St., Syracuse. (315) 214-5119
Hours: Monday-Saturday 4 to 10 pm (unless there’s an early SU game); Sunday 1 to 9 pm (Hours will adjust after football season)
Credit cards? Yes
Dress: Sports bar attire. No shirt, no shoes, no beer. (You might get an extra smile if you’re wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.)
Alcohol: Believe it or not, yes. It’s a bar.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Eat in? Yes
Parking: On-street parking with a small lot out back.
Charlie Miller finds the best in food, drink and fun across Central New York. Contact him at (315) 382-1984or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (AND he pays for what he and his guests eat and drink, just so you know.) You can also find him under @HoosierCuse on Twitter and on Instagram. Sign up for his free weekly Where Syracuse Eats newsletter here.
MORE CNY FOOD & DRINKS
First Look: A popular Puerto Rican food truck becomes a restaurant in North Syracuse
First Look: Longtime deli in CNY village transformed into bona fide Tex-Mex eatery (video)
First Looks in CNY