A restaurant remake by Kalvin Tang hatched Kal’s Chicken Coop in January. In Billings, on 24th Street West, Tang has transformed his restaurant JP Kitchen, once serving modern Asian cuisine to now a diner-style eatery featuring fried hand breaded chicken tenders. The experience is fast-casual with chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders and fries.
The original red and black colored space symbolizing good fortune and sky, designed by Jeremiah Young of Kibler and Kirch, has been refashioned. Chic Asian is now a playful farmhouse with black checkered tablecloths covering tables flanked with yellow chairs and red stools. In white cursive script, the words “Kal’s Chicken” display prominently over the kitchen, prep and service area. The black pendant lights that once hung low over the tables now float higher above.
While JP Kitchen honored the 26-year-legacy of Jade Palace, a restaurant started by his parents Stephen and Selina, Tang is finding his own “concept where I can still cook and be adaptable to Billings.” After closing JP Kitchen in July for six months when an employee tested positive for COVID-19 and having extended his lease for another five years, Tang had to figure out what to do next.
“In the kitchen, I took out the wok range. We cut it up, 8,000 pounds of steel and metal was recycled.” With an additional fryer in place and a new grill, he was set, “We’re more in the volume game rather than focusing on each individual touch point.” These days he processes about 40 to 50 pounds of chicken thighs, and the same volume of breasts per day. The dark meat goes into his hot sandwiches while the breasts are processed for tenders. The chicken goes through brining. They are dipped in buttermilk and coated with a dry mix of cornstarch, flour and salt flavored with paprika and onion powder.
Tang and his staff peel and cut up about 50 to 75 pounds of potatoes a day. Using Russet potatoes, the hand-punched batons are blanched to tender in vinegar and water, and fried. Then they are held and fried again to order.
I step into Kal’s Chicken Coop this noon hour to grab something to take home. The entry-foyer, once bordered by orderly dark wood slats reminiscent of an Asian sanctuary has been replaced with white farm fencing. I walk right past a bright yellow to-go chicken coop, built by Jeremy Engebretson, fellow chef friend, which holds the readied orders for pickup.
From the menu on the wall, I order a teriyaki chicken sandwich with grilled chicken, grilled pineapple, Swiss cheese, onion, and house-made teriyaki sauce, and a small order of chicken tenders with four pieces accompanied with Kal’s tender sauce and honey mustard.
After Jessica Thompson takes my order, I wait at the long table by the window. Where once hung a pair of large red chop sticks, a photo playing on Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting parodying American culture dominates the wall. Kalvin and his wife Kiki are the main characters in the photo holding a pitchfork and a chicken.
Tang said of the food at Kal’s Chicken Coop, “It’s homemade food cooked to order. It’s common food, freshly made with some heart going into it."
"I wanted to be ahead of the game,” he added, as fast-food institutions have recently debuted fried chicken sandwiches.
I take my order home in a brown paper bag sealed with a long piece of red tape. Inside two boxes lined with red and white checkered paper hold a sandwich, and four large candy bar sized tenders. The toasted potato bun holding the grilled teriyaki chicken showcases the symmetrical grill marks on the pineapple. I bite into an easy-eating sandwich that was mouthwateringly tender. In the future I would ask for more of the savory and sweet sauce on the side.
Even after being sealed in the container for nearly half an hour, a still-crispy coating encased the moist meat. Kal’s tender sauce, a concoction of ketchup, mayonnaise and lemon juice, offered sentiments of comfort.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kal’s Chicken Coop demonstrates how the efforts of reinvention and restarting take diners into a new chapter of eating.
Stella Fong, author of 'Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food' hosts 'Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region' for Yellowstone Public Radio.
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