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Special Sauce: Alvin Cailan on What “American Food” Means in 2019

Special Sauce: Alvin Cailan on What “American Food” Means in 2019

Photograph of Alvin Cailan

[Alvin Cailan photograph: Courtesy of Alvin Cailan. Burger photograph: Vicky Wasik]

In part 2 of my extraordinary chat with chef-restaurateur-activist Alvin Cailan, we delved deeply into his socio-political motivations, but we still managed to fit in some laughs.

Cailan says he’s always been motivated to confound the pessimism he frequently encountered growing up, akin to what former President George W. Bush described as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

“I grew up in the early 1990s in the rebellious era of gangster rap and…the rise of the immigrant voice,” Cailan tells me, and that spirit helped him push back against the people in his hometown of Pico Rivera in California, who would tell him his ambitions were fantasies. “Everyone tells you, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ ‘Don’t even think about going to UCLA or USC.’ My whole entire life I’ve always been fighting for,’I can do it, too.'”

That can-do attitude basically led to the creation of the popular web series he hosts on First We Feast, The Burger Show. After convincing the producers of the FOX cartoon Bob’s Burgers to allow him to run a pop-up that offered burgers featured on the show (“I had seven days, seven chefs, seven pun burgers and we did out of my incubator in Las Angeles.”), Cailan became known for his burgers. Or, as he puts it, “I became the burger dude. People started asking me to go on their shows, their podcast, whatever. Finally, [the producer] Justin Bolois…asked me if I can host this show he’s working on.” And he couldn’t pass it up. “I love burgers,” Cailan says. “I never really intended to be a TV or personality.”

The Usual, one of Cailan’s restaurants in New York City, has an unusual sandwich board sign in front: “American comfort food cooked by children of immigrants.” I ask him what the story is about that. “I want people to know, when they’re coming here, they’re going to have food cooked by people of color and it’s American comfort food, but influenced by our ethnicity and our culture…It’s American food in 2019.”

I also get Cailan to explain to me why you can’t order one of his signature sandwiches at The Usual, but to find out what sandwich that is and why he can’t give it to you, you’re just going to have to listen to find out.

Special Sauce is available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Player FM, and Stitcher. You can also find the archive of all our episodes here on Serious Eats and on this RSS feed.

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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Alvin Cailan: That’s kind of why Eggslut had such an open kitchen, because I wanted people to see where food came from. It wasn’t just coming from a window, handed to you. There’s actually people of color making your food.

EL: My guest today is, again, the wonderful and talented Alvin Cailan.

AC: Thank you so much.

EL: The Eggslut king and the host of The Burger Show.

AC: What’s up, everybody?

EL: So, let’s talk about The Burger Show, which is-

AC: Oh, man.

EL: There’s so much bad food stuff on YouTube.

AC: Oh my god, yes.

EL: But then there’s The Burger Show.

AC: Yeah.

EL: So, tell me about the origins of The Burger Show, and we should say that Alvin is the host?

AC: Yes.

EL: I presume you co-produce it whether you call the co-producer or not.

AC: Yes. Me and Justin Bolois, we definitely riff off of each other, and that’s how the episodes…

EL: Yeah. So, tell us about it-

AC: Oh, I don’t know.

EL: … and how it came to be.

AC: Burgers are a passion of mine. I think it was the first thing I’ve ever been a connoisseur of.

EL: Not me. I hate burgers.

AC: No way.

EL: No.

AC: Impossible.

EL: No, no. I love burgers.

AC: Yeah.

EL: I showed you that story I wrote-

AC: Yeah.

EL: …man, with this big burger.

AC: You’re a burger OG.

EL: I’m a burger OG.

AC: Yeah. I don’t know what happened. We just did a burger popup, I guess… The real story would be, I’m a big fan of Bob’s Burgers, the cartoon on FOX. I went onto a table read and I got to meet all of them; all the actors, all the producers. I just had this crazy idea where I was like, “Hey guys, I’m a chef.” Oh! Also, I brought everybody Eggslut sandwiches so that kind of-

EL: See but… You know what? That’s a really effective sales and marketing tool.

AC: Yeah! It works.

EL: If you read my book, it’s the same thing. I thought, if I just brought great food to every meeting-

AC: Yes.

EL: …people wouldn’t say no.

AC: Exactly. Exactly. It was the hottest restaurant at the time. They loved it and I somehow convinced them to let me host a Bob’s Burger popup. I had seven days, seven chefs, seven pun burgers and he did out of my incubator in Las Angeles. A year later, we did the same thing in New York in the dead of winter at the chefs club counter.

EL: Mm-hmm.

AC: On Spring and Lafayette and 400 people showed up. Every food outlet, every food media outlet showed up to this to cover it and then I became the burger dude.

EL: You went, in a very short time, from the Eggslut king to the burger dude.

AC: Yeah. I became the burger dude. People started asking me to go on their shows, their podcast, whatever. Finally, Justin Bolois, the main dude from First We Feast, who creates a lot of content for that. We did some stuff in the past and we would always talk about Apple pen and how great Apple pen was. Then, he asked me if I can host this show he’s working on. So I was like, “You know, I’m down.” I love burgers. I never really intended to be a TV or personality-

EL: But you’re not shy.

AC: I’m not shy. I’m very vocal about things.

EL: Yes.

AC: Yes. So, it’s like… I was like, “Okay. Let’s try it out. If I suck, don’t be afraid to let me go and change me mid episode.” I’m not… This is not what I want. This has never been on the life…

EL: Right.

AC: So, let me know if I’m messing up. It turned out to do well. My ratio of thumbs up and thumbs downs are great. They kept going.

EL: Now you’ve got millions of downloads. Right?

AC: Yeah. Yeah. We were averaging about a million, a million plus per episode. We’re on our fourth season.

EL: That’s awesome!

AC: Yeah.

EL: I saw the Seth Rogen episode.

AC: Yeah!

EL: How the hell do you get these movie stars?

AC: Seth Rogen was easy. He was a customer of mine.

EL: Oh, that’s right because you made that clear in the show.

AC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. He is the type of guy where he would pay that would never use his money. In fact, I started the Seth Rogen emergency fund with an envelope of all his tips. There’s a story on that episode where they actually had to use it. I think that was the first time he ever heard that story and now we’re real good friends. We talk to each other all the time. Seth Rogen is an amazing dude. A lot of our guests we’ve had Kenji on; which was a life like bucket list thing. He would tell me how smokey his apartment would get in Brooklyn when he’d make burgers.

EL: Oh, yes! He would make his burgers… First of all, that apartment, I don’t think it had any windows. It was… He was… They were living hand to mouth. Audrey, his wife was in graduate school.

AC: Right.

EL: They had no money and that place got really smokey.

AC: It’s also legendary, right? That’s where a lot of the burger lab stuff started.

EL: Yeah.

AC: Yeah. That’s what we get to do on the show. We get to do some crazy experimental stuff. It’s not just showing up to a restaurant eating, eating their burger.

EL: No, and that’s the good thing. It’s like you don’t go to three burger places and take a bite and go, “Mmmmmm that’s really good.”

AC: Yeah. No we-

EL: I hate that.

AC: We go behind the scenes. We figure out why crispy cheese is on the Shady Glen burger in Connecticut.

EL: Connecticut. I’ve had that burger.

AC: Right! Yeah, we figure out why the Lacy Edge burger is so famous in Indianapolis and in the Midwest because that’s such a creative way of making a burger.

EL: Then you break it down.

AC: And we break it down. We find out the history of it all. The burger knowledge in itself just becomes, “Oh, that’s why I love burgers.” You know that.—

EL: I saw one episode where you had my friend Babish.

AC: Oh, yeah!

EL: Who’s the man!

AC: He is the man. I love that guy.

EL: He’s a great guy.

AC: Yeah, this season-

EL: That’s not his real name, by the way.

AC: Yeah. Andrew.

EL: Andrew Ray.

AC: Yeah.

EL: Then you had my other friend, George Motts.

AC: Oh, yeah! Dude, that… He’s our resident burgerologist-

EL: Burgerologist.

AC: …expert. Yeah. He just knows everybody and everything in burgers. We go to his house or he comes and shows me around different places. That’s the DNA of the show. The DNA of the show is the in depth look into burger culture in America.

EL: It’s not just what you’d think you’d find.

AC: Yeah.

EL: There’s a little surprise in every episode to me.

AC: Yeah. There’s a little nugget of information that you’ll-

EL: Yeah.

AC: …you’ll walk away and say, “Oh, I never knew that before-

EL: Yeah.

AC: …about burgers.” Then, you have a whole new found appreciation for it.

EL: Yeah. That’s cool.

AC: The burgers, as simple as they are, they’re jam packed with history and character.

EL: Yeah, for sure and culture.

AC: Yeah.

EL: So, lets talk about immigrant food. I’ve been to the local, the Usual. Excuse me.

AC: Yeah.

EL: There’s a sign right outside-

AC: Yeah.

EL: What’s it say? This food is…

AC: American comfort food cooked by children of immigrants.

EL: Yeah.

AC: Yeah.

EL: That’s clearly an important thing to you.

AC: Very.

EL: Tell us about that because that’s not… That’s a deep subject.

AC: Well, you know, I grew up again, I grew up in the early 1990s in the rebellious era of gangster rap and just basically the rise of the immigrant voice I believe. Coming from the city of Pico Rivera where everyone tells you, you can’t… There’s a lot of microaggression. So there’s an “Oh, you can’t do that.”

EL: Yeah, there were microaggression only they didn’t call it microaggression.

AC: Yeah.

EL: They were just like fuck yous.

AC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. “You can’t do that.” Don’t even think about going to UCLA or USC or whatever. “You can’t do that.” “You’re not where you’re supposed to be.”

EL: Right and you’d be selling out if you did.

AC: Right. Exactly. Getting good grades was like, oh that’s not a cool thing.

EL: Yeah.

AC: My whole entire life I’ve always been fighting for the “I can always… I can do it too.” You know what I mean. If my friends were… If some of my white friends or whatever would to vacation to Hawaii, I’d tell my parents, “Hey lets save up to go to Hawaii. We can go there too.” You know what I mean.

EL: Yeah.

AC: It’s just stuff like that.

EL: Right. There were barriers waiting to be broken. Yeah.

AC: Yeah. That’s the thing. I did that with pretty much my entire career. That’s why Eggslut has such an open kitchen. I wanted people to see where the food came from. It wasn’t Just coming from a window handed to you. There’s actually people of color making your food. That’s always been a credo of mine. We finally inherited this restaurant in New York City. Obviously, New York space is at a premium, so our kitchen is downstairs. Now the voice of the immigrant is now on copy. It’s written on the—

EL: Right.

AC: So, we have our serv-

EL: I wonder if something gets lost in translation because of that.

AC: It does. You know, I posted this on my Instagram and its probably got the most action in a really long time. A lot of people tend to miss the word immigrant and they see the word illegal. I started getting messages saying, “Hey, whey are you hiring illegal immigrants?”

AC: I’m like, there’s nothing on that sign that says illegal on it.

EL: That is so fascinating.

AC: Yes. It turned into two days of me commenting back and I never comment back on my Instagram ever, but these people were commenting on like a negative tone. I’d be like, “So, what if we were illegal? What would be the problem?”

EL: Yeah.

AC: “Where have you eaten?” If you were going to get mad at me for this, then you can eat anywhere.

EL: You can’t eat anywhere in America.

AC: You can’t eat anywhere in America. I’m sorry, but that’s the light and no one knows that. It’s been my mission-

EL: Well, Bourdain used to talk about that.

AC: Yeah, he did and he did so well. The thing is, I don’t think people were listening.

EL: Yeah.

AC: You know. Now it’s like look, I have a prep cook who is from Thailand. When he makes family meals, he’ll introduce flavors to us. We’ll go, “Oh, man. We should make a dish like this.” I have another prep cooks who’s from Senegal. I mean this guy is a gangster. He makes better pasta than I’ve had from actual Italian chefs. He has that touch of feell for pasta, right. I have a Filipino sous chef who’s girlfriend is Korean and all he cooks is Korean food at home. When he makes his dishes, whenever we brainstorm on dishes, he makes a steak with sum yung demi glace; which is a Korean steak sauce. It just makes sense. If were to throw a steak frites dish, it would be steak, french fries, and the Korean demi glace that just tops it off and it makes it amazing. That’s 2019 food.

EL: Yeah.

AC: At the end of the day, twenty years ago, the word fusion; like fusion cuisine-

EL: Was confusion.

AC: Yeah and now its evolved into-

EL: Genuine fusion.

AC: Yeah. It’s American food at 2019.

EL: Yeah.

AC: Where you can make cacio pepe and you can put tapioca on it. You can make… I mean there’s lines out the door for this place that has a cheeseburger dumpling.

EL: Right.

AC: You know what I mean. That’s almost become with social media attached to it. It’s almost become 2019 American food. That’s all I’m saying. With my restaurant, you’re eating 2019 food made by children of immigrants. Either people really, really really love it and they dig it and they show up every single day; and they’re like, yes, give us what’s new. What’s the special burger of the day? Or they’re like, “Oh you hire illegal immigrants.” Let me give you one star.

EL: Wow! That’s so fascinating.

AC: Yeah.

EL: I’ve eaten there a few times in the last week to prepare for the show.

AC: Okay.

EL: It’s very tough that my R&D for the show-

AC: Right. Right.

EL: You know. It’s really, this research is a—

AC: I’m sorry that I didn’t have any Eggslut sandwiches.

EL: Oh! Did you know I was kidding?

AC: I was there.

EL: Oh, you were there? You know I know because my friend, who I was with, who also works at Serious Eats, Paul our head of product. He’s like, “I think that’s the dude you’re interviewing on Special Sauce.”

AC: Yeah.

EL: You were sitting right in the window.

AC: Right. Yeah. I was sitting in the window and I make sure that I tell everybody, “that’s the dude from Serious Eats just FYI.” They’re like, “Oh, already asked for the Eggslut sandwiches.” And I’m like “Oh, crap.” Legally, I can’t give you one because my partners will have a cow.

EL: Right. We figured that out.

AC: Yeah.

EL: I was like… Because then I went to next day-

AC: Yeah.

EL: …and that’s what you’re talking about.

AC: Yeah.

EL: I went for lunch the next day-

AC: Yeah.

EL: …and I asked for the… And they said, No, we don’t serve those.” I’m like, “What!”

AC: Yeah.

EL: Then I was texting Paul. I was like, “Dude, I’m at the Usual for lunch and I can’t get an egg sandwich.”

AC: Yeah we do have—

EL: Then he says, “I bet there’s a contractual obligation.”

AC: 100%.

EL: Yeah. You have investors in Eggslut.

AC: Yeah.

EL: You can’t serve egg sandwiches.

AC: No, I can’t serve egg sandwiches. We have a lot of fun things on the menu.

EL: Yeah, but the food by the way, was delicious.

AC: Thank you.

EL: The dinner food. We had tuna tartar, which was excellent.

AC: Amazing.

EL: We had the fried chicken, which was serious.

AC: Oh, yeah.

EL: Those chive cheese biscuits-

AC: Oh. Yeah. Yeah.

EL: …also serious.

AC: Awesome.

EL: We had the burger, which was excellent.

AC: Thank you.

EL: Eggscellent. E-G-G-S. No I’m just kidding. Then we had that hoe cake.

AC: Yeah.

EL: That was delicious.

AC: Yeah, it’s all-

EL: Like a skillet cornbread almost.

AC: It’s a skillet cornbread. We use to serve two tiny ones with the fried chicken, but now we do the biscuits. Then we do a hoe cake. I love when we it’s crispy like that on the cast iron.

EL: It was delicious, man. Now you solved the mystery of why couldn’t I get an egg sandwich.

AC: Yeah.

EL: We were right.

AC: I figured this would be the perfect platform to talk about that. My poor servers were like, I don’t know-

EL: He seems annoyed.

AC: Yeah. “I feel like he’s not happy.” I was like, “Don’t worry, we’ll smooth that out later on this week.”

EL: That’s awesome.

AC: The burger you have mentioned that’s inspired by Spain. There’s grated tomatoes on it, pan con tomate or pan tomate or whatever the traditional… What you call that is where you get the bread-

EL: Yeah.

AC: …and you rub with garlic-

EL: With garlic.

AC: …and then tomatoes. This was an homage for me when I created this burger. This was an homage to Jose Andres.

EL: Got it.

AC: Because of the works he did in Puerto Rico. That was the same time I was developing this burger and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to make burger for this guy.” It just turned into becoming the usual burger. It was like, “Oh, man.” This is almost like I was craving it.

EL: Yeah.

AC: So, this—and that was it.

EL: This is good because it was slightly cheffy but not stupid.

AC: Right.

EL: It totally made sense.

AC: Yeah.

EL: Which is awesome.

AC: It’s a classic burger.

EL: Yeah.

AC: You know?

EL: It was delicious.

AC: As a classic burger-

EL: Delicious, the fries were great man.

AC: Yeah.

EL: I’ve been reading and there were things on the menu, which of course I didn’t order, because that’s not how I roll.

AC: Right.

EL: But there were some healthy things.

AC: Oh, yeah. For lunch, especially.

EL: Yeah. What’s up with the healthy thing?

AC: Well, I do a lot of that stuff because my personal balance reflects my menu as well because I do eat a lot burgers. I do eat a lot of red meat and during the day time I try to eat no meat at all.

EL: Interesting.

AC: From the moment I wake up til about 6 PM, I try to limit the amount of meat I eat.

EL: Some people do, yeah, where they do vegan until 6:00.

AC: Yeah.

EL: Or vegan after 6.

AC: Yeah. Yeah. I do that. That’s really affected my menu for lunch. Also, it’s really pushing me as a chef to create some delicious things.

EL: Like using yogurt-

AC: Yogurt, yeah.

EL: …and seeds and nuts.

AC: Yogurt, seeds, making clusters, making butters. We do this rice vermicelli salad and it has the edamame puree, a traditional Japanese ginger scallion dressing.

EL: Oh, yeah. I saw that on the menu.

AC: Yeah. It’s very light and refreshing.

EL: I didn’t get it because it seemed really healthy.

AC: It sounds weird.

EL: Yeah.

AC: But, there’s so much flavor to it. It’s like power food. I figure at lunch, you kind of want to eat power food because you don’t want to just fall asleep. I don’t offer fried chicken at lunch at my restaurant because I just know you’ll probably want to take a nap after.

EL: Yeah. That fried chicken is really good.

AC: Someone like me who is on the go, I definitely can’t get weighed down by food. That’s how I power through the breakfast and lunch menu. We got to have the indulgent stuff; which is like pancakes. We make these pancakes and they’re so fluffy and delicious.

EL: What?

AC: Oh, yeah.

EL: But you couldn’t get them at lunch?

AC: Yeah, we stop selling them I think at eleven because we do-

EL: Okay. That’s why I’m annoyed. You tell the servers if I have known there were pancakes that I missed out on-

AC: Right.

EL: …in addition to the egg sandwich-

AC: Yeah, see what our issue is, is that the way we do our staffing; it’s literally like we deploy teams.

EL: Shifts.

AC: My breakfast team, once they’re done they take everything out because we have such a small kitchen-

EL: So the mis en place is gone?

AC: Yeah, it’s gone. They put it away on their shelves and then the lunch guys come in and put theirs in. That turns into happy hour and then we put that away. Then the dinner guys come in. The dinner guys are prepping during lunch so there’s always this change of guard that happens in the kitchen. That’s how we have to do it. It’s New York City.

EL: Right.

AC: That’s the way the Labor makes us do it.

EL: How is New York treating you at that restaurant in general? Is it challenging in ways that you didn’t find LA challenging?

AC: It’s challenging in a sense where I have no idea how to run a New York restaurant because I’m from LA. The nuances are completely different, but-

EL: It’s in a hotel?

AC: It’s in a hotel, but I disregard all of that stuff. The rebellious side of me is like, “I’m going to do it the way we do it in LA.” The other day, it was beautiful weather out, I threw the grill outside and I started making burgers on the sidewalk.

EL: Just…

AC: Just to do it. Yeah. That’s the way I am. That’s the way we did it in California and that’s how we get to know the community. What we want to do is really get to ingrain ourselves into the Little Italy, Chinatown in that area.

EL: Oh, yeah. You know our offices were a block from there. We were on Grant Street. We were across from the DiPalo Dairy.

AC: Oh, that’s really close. Oh. Dude, which, is where we get our burrata—

EL: And mozzarella. Yeah.

AC: Yeah. Yeah.

EL: That mozzarella by the way, the best mozzarella in New York.

AC: Oh my God! You can’t even touch it.

EL: It’s like… It’s crazy.

AC: It’s so good. Yeah. That’s what we do there. That’s our thing. We’re not a traditional New York restaurant, but we’re definitely… We like to show our characteristics and our personality through the restaurant.

EL: Yeah. That’s good.

AC: Its worked. Its worked.

EL: The hotel is okay with it?

AC: Oh, yeah! We know we partnered up with the hotel. We don’t like to consider ourselves a hotel restaurant.

EL: Got it.

AC: We are affiliated with them in a sense where we do share the same building.

EL: Right.

AC: We share a lot of the same rooms and infrastructure. It’s interesting.

EL: Yeah.

AC: It’s interesting being in New York City compared to Los Angeles.

EL: Sure. I’m sure.

AC: It’s different.

EL: Concepts like Amboy are sort of, you’re not pursuing for the time being.

AC: Well, no. We’re building an Amboy restaurant.

EL: Oh, you are?

AC: Yeah. We’re building it on Mulberry.

EL: Close to the restaurant?

AC: Yeah. Everything that we’re doing… I live on Prince Street.

EL: Oh.

AC: I’m trying to… This part of my life and my career, I want to just keep it close to home.

EL: Yeah. Danny Meyer use to talk about wanting to be able to walk everywhere—

AC: That’s where I learned it from. From his book-

EL: He just did the kickoff event for my book.

AC: That’s a power move for sure.

EL: Yeah. It was awesome because we’ve been friends for twenty years.

AC: Right.

EL: Lived through a lot of highs and lows in each other’s lives.

AC: Understood.

EL: It’s always the best way to forge a friendship.

AC: Right.

EL: It was really fun.

AC: Yeah. I learned that from him.

EL: Yeah.

AC: Just keep it hyper local; keep it community based so it can last forever.

EL: When do you think Amboy will open?

AC: Maybe September, I hope in New York City. Again-

EL: Oh, it’s rough.

AC: I’m from LA, we can open restaurants within three months. New York City is a lot more hoops to jump over.

EL: I know. Oh my God! Trying to get the gas turned on in the kitchen-

AC: Oh my gosh!

EL: …in New York you know that we moved Serious Eats from Grant Street to Industry City-

AC: Okay.

EL: …in late 2015 after we were sold.

AC: Right.

EL: We didn’t get gas for two years.

AC: What?

EL: Two years.

AC: Wow!

EL: Two years.

AC: Yeah. I have friends that tried to open a restaurant and their construction was done and six months later they were still twiddling their thumbs.

EL: I know. It’s insane.

AC: And they’re like, “Oh, yeah-

EL: If you talk to any chef, like Carmelinie has stories about The Dutch that—

AC: Yeah. Oh, really?

EL: Oh, yeah. Forget it man. Now it’s time for the Special Sauce buffet. No pressure Alvin.

AC: No, none.

EL: You just take your time man.

AC: None taken. You got it.

EL: There’s no bells that are going to ring. Who’s at your last supper? No family allowed. It can be people that are living, dead, musicians, artists.

AC: Man, that’s interesting. I probably have… I love sports.

EL: Okay.

AC: So, I’d probably have Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant, and Lewis Hamilton.

EL: Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One driver?

AC: Yes. Yeah, I love Formula One.

EL: No women?

AC: Now that you bring that up, there’s actually quite a few women I’d-

EL: Yeah.

AC: …I’d bring in there.

EL: You got three women to match the three men.

AC: Yeah. Yes. Lets talk about that. Lets do… I love Drew Barrymore.

EL: Okay.

AC: I think that she’s such an amazing person. She’s like me. She’s created herself so many different ways-

EL: Uh-huh

AC: Definitely her. Alicia Keys.

EL: Alicia Keys.

AC: I have to have Alicia Keys. She’s just one of those song birds that just knows how-

EL: She can make you cry.

AC: Yeah. Definitely and at the end of the day, Oprah Winfrey.

EL: Alright.

AC: You have to do—You have to do Oprah.

EL: It’s a hell of a table.

AC: Yeah.

EL: What are you eating?

AC: Oh, man. You know what? I’m pushing… They have to eat what I’m eating; which is garlic fried rice-

EL: Okay.

AC: …spam or longaniza spam. Any type of-

EL: Longaniza is another type of sausage.

AC: Yeah, a Filipino sausage and fried eggs.

EL: So great.

AC: Filipino breakfast.

EL: Okay.

AC: That’s what we’re eating.

EL: Nothing sweet?

AC: Well, the longaniza is kind of sweet.

EL: Alright, but not dessert or anything?

AC: No. No. No. No.

EL: Okay. Alright. I don’t want to mess up this last supper. Who’re you listening to?

AC: Oh, my gosh! Right now or at the dinner?

EL: No, just at the dinner.

AC: Oh, man. That’s tough.

EL: What are you cranking?

AC: We’re probably cranking backpack hip-hop from the early 2000s.

EL: So give me an artist?

AC: The Hieroglyphics, the Visionaries, the Loot Packs. The Stones throw era. Anything J Dilla; very backpack, jazzy, hiphop.

EL: Wow! Alright.

AC: You know what I mean. Yeah.

EL: I like that.

AC: Yeah, that’s what we’re listening to.

EL: I love that man. What do you cook when there is nothing in the house to eat?

AC: Oh, rice.

EL: Rice.

AC: I make rice and anything else.

EL: Anything? Anything you happen to have?

AC: Anything. I can even have canned tuna and rice if-

EL: If you have to.

AC: I will make that work.

EL: They call that tuna casserole.

AC: Yeah, tuna casserole. I’ll eat that all day or even if it’s just soy sauce and scallions with chives.

EL: I love that.

AC: Yeah. That’s what I eat at home when there’s nothing there.

EL: Do you have a guilty pleasure or two?

AC: Oh my God! Right now, I’m really into collecting baseball gloves.

EL: They’re not edible.

AC: Oh. No. No. No, they’re not edible. Edible guilty pleasures. So many.

EL: Where to start?

AC: Yeah. Last night, I definitely had McDonald’s chicken nuggets. I tried their Spanish burger from Spain.

EL: Oh, how was it?

AC: That marketing really worked on me.

EL: You know what is really good? Their quarter pounders they cook to order.

AC: Yeah.

EL: Okay. They don’t get enough credit for that.

AC: What kind… They’re getting a really good sear on those bad boys.

EL: Yeah.

AC: I don’t know what they’re doing. Yeah, I got this bacon Spanish from Spain burger yesterday from McDonald’s. I definitely consider that a guilty pleasure. You know, we’re suckers for chocolate at the restaurant. My GM, Kim, he brings in box or bags of M&Ms and skittles.

EL: Peanuts or plain?

AC: We get both. We actually get three different kinds.

EL: Wow! That’s impressive.

AC: Yeah, and we put it in a lowboy and everyone knows to go and grab the crappy candy down there. That’s pretty funny.

EL: Who would you like to have a one on one lunch with just to see how he or she thinks?

AC: Oh, that’s a great question? Right now, at this particular moment, I’d probable say President Trump.

EL: Really?

AC: I would. We’d probably be eating taco salads, but I really want to press him on why he, why he’s such a…

EL: Yeah. I don’t want to say it.

AC: Why he believes in what he believes in.

EL: Yeah.

AC: At the end of the day in the world of clout, I feel like he only says things because people want to hear it. It’s like, you’re the leader of the free world.

EL: You got to stop this.

AC: Yeah. Tell him… Lets talk about this. I feel like no one will say that, but everyone wants to do it. I’m not afraid of that guy. I would, I’d love to talk to him about certain things.

EL: I love it. I love it. This is the last question. It’s just been declared Alvin Cailan Day.

AC: Oh my goodness.

EL: All over the world.

AC: Wow!

EL: What’s happening on that day?

AC: Alvin Cailan Day is probably, it would be like a lechon party. People bring out the roasted pigs and just chow down man.

EL: Would they be dancing? Would they-

AC: Oh, yeah. All of that. It would be like the Godfather scene when the son just got his first communion or whatever. That’s what we’re doing. That’s how I envision Alvin Cailan Day.

EL: It’s a Filipino scene-

AC: Yeah.

EL: …reimagined from the Godfather.

AC: From the Godfather. Whether it be the wedding scene or whether it be first communion thing; we’re doing it big. There’s a band playing.

EL: People would just be doing little Godfather riffs like, “Don’t ask me about my business Kate.”

AC: Yeah.

EL: “Whatever you do, don’t ask-

AC: “Don’t ask me about my business.”

EL: “Just this one time. I’m going to allow you to ask questions.” “Did you have so and so killed?” “Absolutely not.”

AC: Then the door closes.

EL: Exactly. It’s great.

AC: And everyone is kissing the ring.

EL: Alright, Alvin Cailan, thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us.

AC: Thanks for having me. That was so fun.

EL: If you’ve never had an Eggslut sandwich, you really haven’t lived. Okay. I’m just going to say that.

AC: Wow!

EL: Check out the Usual-

AC: Yes.

EL: …in NYC and we look forward to Amboy opening up. Check out The Burger Show. It’s a lot of fun.

AC: Yeah. Burger show.

EL: It’s great to have you man.

AC: Thank you. I appreciate it. Come the Usual. I expect you guys there all the time.

EL: We noticed.

AC: Okay. I’ll see y’all there.

EL: We’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.

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Why So Serious? Escaping Food Media’s Uncanny Valley

Why So Serious? Escaping Food Media’s Uncanny Valley

[Illustrations and animations: Alyssa Nassner] Editors’ Note: Welcome to Why So Serious?, a series by Allison Robicelli about embracing misfit foods. Stay tuned for the next installment in August. If, like me, you wisely spend several hours a week monitoring advancements in the Japanese AI […]

Grilled Turkish-Style Chicken Wings Recipe

Grilled Turkish-Style Chicken Wings Recipe

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik] If you’re in need of a new spicy treatment for chicken wings, you’ve come to the right place. This recipe draws inspiration from the grilled wings that can be found in Turkish kebab shops (such as those Kenji visited on his 2014 […]

You Kanat Believe How Good These Turkish Chicken Wings Are

You Kanat Believe How Good These Turkish Chicken Wings Are

Lightly charred Turkish-style wings on a Japanese konro grill

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

When I decided recently to work on a series of grilled-meat-on-a-stick recipes, I asked my Serious Eats coworkers to list their favorite skewered foods, in hopes of finding some dishes that could be mined for recipe development. Our features editor, Sho, always a source of great ideas, replied to my request almost immediately: “Grilled Turkish chicken wings. They’re ridiculously good.”

I was instantly sold, but, having never been to Turkey, I needed him to fill me in on the details of these chicken wings. Sho proceeded to explain how he had eaten more than his share of these wings when he was last in Turkey, having sought them out after reading Kenji’s mouthwatering report of the best things he ate on his own visit to Istanbul a few years ago.

In his account, Kenji describes the wings, called kanat and found in most Turkish kebab shops, as being “marinated in chilies and spices” before they’re “threaded on skewers, [and] grilled over charcoal.” After pressing Sho for a from-memory description of the spices and chilies that he thought went into the marinade (“hot pepper paste and cumin”), along with some YouTube and Instagram recipe-sleuthing deep dives, I gathered a spread of usual-suspect Turkish pantry ingredients and began experimenting.

It would have been foolish to try to faithfully re-create a marinade for a dish that I had never actually eaten myself, so I set out to just make a really tasty version of my own that fits with the spirit of the wings that Sho described to me.

Closeup side view of a plate of grilled Turkish-style chicken wings, with lightly charred skin, and a ramekin of red pepper dipping sauce in the background.

The marinade that I came up with starts with biber salçasi, a Turkish pepper paste that’s sold in both sweet and hot varieties. Seeing as these wings are meant to be spiked with chilies, I opted for the hot version. Biber salçasi is a great base for a marinade; it has a thick and sticky consistency similar to that of tomato paste, and a deep roasted-chili flavor that packs plenty of slow-building, mellow heat, but also some sweet sun-dried-tomato vibes.

A little smoky isot pepper (often labeled urfa biber or Urfa pepper here in the States) and paprika round out the chili notes, and a touch of pomegranate molasses provides sweet-tart balance to the heat, while also giving the marinade some viscosity. Minced garlic and chopped fresh parsley bring freshness to the mix, and it all gets brought together with a healthy glug of extra-virgin olive oil.

After stirring everything together, I set a portion of the marinade aside to use as a dipping sauce for the wings once they finish cooking on the grill. The remaining marinade gets tossed with fresh chicken wings that have been split into flats and drumettes.

Overhead shot of a tray of skewered Turkish chicken wings rubbed with chili paste, before cooking

I let the wings marinate for at least one hour and up to 24 hours. Marinades are really just surface-level flavor treatments, but that’s not a letdown with chicken wings, since there isn’t a ton of meat on them to begin with.

After marinating, I thread the wings onto pairs of metal skewers that are set a little over an inch apart. This double-skewering method, used at Turkish kebab shops, makes the wings much easier to move around on the grill, which in turn means you can cook them at an even rate.

Closeup of Turkish-style wings grilling on a Japanese konro grill

If you’ve ever spent most of your time at a cookout flipping wings one by one with a pair of tongs, then you’ll appreciate the efficiency of this dual kebab-spearing method. Because they have different shapes, and cook at slightly different rates, make sure to thread the flats and drumettes on different sets of skewers.

Thread the flats between the two bones on each piece, bunching the pieces tightly together. For the drumettes, alternate the orientation of the pieces on the skewers, so it’s like they’re sleeping head to toe in a cramped tent.

Grilling skewered Turkish-style wings over hot coals with the foil-wrapped brick skewer set-up.

Once all the wings are skewered, it’s time to grill. I highly recommend taking the time to set up the improved kebab-grilling rig that I’ve developed, making sure to adjust the distance between the bricks to accommodate the length of your skewers.

For these wings, you can either cook them directly over the coals, as with my al pastor skewers, or on top of a mesh wire rack set over the bricks.

Turkish-style wings that have just begun to cook on top of a mesh wire rack on a Japanese konro charcoal grill

I arrange the lit coals for two-zone direct-fire cooking, then rest the skewers over the bricks, with half of them directly over the coals and the other half on the cooler side of the grill.

Turn the wings over the hot side constantly, until the skin on them has begun to char. Then switch them over to the cooler side of the grill, and move the cool-side skewers above the coals to char them up.

Sasha managing flare-ups while grilling skewers on a Japanese konro grill by moving the wire rack that the skewers are on to a cooler part of the grill.

This constant movement helps manage flare-ups, while keeping the cooking time to a minimum. You’re looking to get a decent amount of char on these wings, so don’t be afraid of occasional flare-ups licking up the sides of the skewers. You just don’t want them to be engulfed in flames.

Once the wings are just cooked through, get them off the grill and let them rest for a few minutes, which allows them (and the hot metal skewers) to cool down slightly. Slide the wings off their skewers, and serve them up with the reserved marinade for dipping.

These wings may not be an exact replica of the ones that Sho described to me, but they are pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Overhead shot of a plate of grilled and charred Turkish-style chicken wings with a ramekin of spicy red pepper dipping sauce.

This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.

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Where to Eat and Drink in Brooklyn: A Local’s Guide

Where to Eat and Drink in Brooklyn: A Local’s Guide

There’s a version of Brooklyn that exists today only in the movies. It’s the one where kids play stickball in the street, grannies in housedresses rest their elbows on pillow-padded windowsills, and people sit on their stoops for hours, occasionally getting up to go chat […]