The heat precipitates the relentless chime of ice cream and water ice trucks, the block parties and bicycle rides. The people, beautiful and not, are relieved of modest clothing and so bear legs, arms and other parts. But to me, it is the chicken men of Philly who are the most breathtaking, and mouth-watering, sign of summer’s arrival.
In Cedar Park, on 49th and Baltimore avenues, a dreadlocked man named King hawks curried and jerk chicken to hungry drinkers exiting the New Third World Lounge and Elena’s Soul Lounge. The hulking chicken platter costs $10, and comes with rice and beans and a side of cabbage salad, sprinkled with hot peppers. But which should I order, curried or jerk?
“What, you never had jerk chicken?” he asks, barely looking up. King moved to Philly from Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 2003 and started cooking at special events like the Philadelphia Carnival and West Philly’s Neighbor to Neighbor.
The chicken is hot, but the meat is so succulent and the spiced sauce so addictive that nothing could interrupt my private orgy of gnawing and finger-licking. I may not be a food writer, but I am a voracious eater.
“I came all the way from Glendale,” another customer, Monica Johnson, 34, says. She first encountered King—who’s open on weekend nights—one night after leaving the Third World Lounge, and was now deciding whether to get curried or jerk. “I’ll probably get both,” she muses. “I’m a little greedy!”
I discovered the next great chicken men by accident, biking through Fairmount Park and over the Strawberry Mansion Bridge into North Philly. I had just eaten lunch three hours earlier, but the minute the barbecue wafted into my sweat-drenched nostrils, I knew that I would be eating again: this time at Cee’s the Moment BBQ—on 33rd Street and Ridge Avenue—run by a man who goes by Cee.
“Straight from the flavor station to your tongue. Don’t let life pass you by—get some!” goes Cee’s syncopated jingle.
Cee and his 22-year-old son, CJ, took over the operation from Cee’s dad, who opened the spot 20 years ago and owned the service station across the street. There is a giant smoker under a big green tarp, and another large metal device keeping cooked meat warm. The potato salad, greens and corn sit in the back of an old F-150 truck. Customers line up in front of a checked tablecloth to choose between ribs, chicken, sausage and a very popular item called the Gangster Burger, the ingredients of which are absolutely top secret.
A customer named Vera couldn’t say what she liked best. And she’s been coming for a long time. “My daughter just turned 21,” she pauses, reflecting over two decades of fantastic meat. “So yeah, it’s been about 20 years.”
I ordered chicken and a two-bone rib sandwich, putting off the sausage, Gangster Burger and various sides for my next visit.
“It’s the best food in the world,” a thoroughly tattooed CJ says. “It ain’t McDonald’s, but you can have it your way.”
Cee’s is open Thursday through Saturday, from (more or less) 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Another chicken man you need to know about, James Leggett, sets up at Second and Poplar streets in the heart of Northern Liberties, and is open weekend nights. Called Side of the Road, it’s a scented siren to passers-by and, I believe, a contributor to distracted driving. When I first visited last year, I was biking home to West Philly from Kensington, and I almost fell off my bike when I smelled Leggett’s spice-rubbed chicken smoking over seasoned wood.
“My kids have lived through this,” says Leggett, talking about how he started making jerk chicken 17 years ago. “Their friends love me. But they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s just Dad.’” Just then, his daughter shows up.
“He is crazy about chicken,” she interrupts, affectionately rolling her eyes. The huge selection of sauces he has to offer—at least six on any given night—is surely a testament to that.
Dinner with Luke Palladino