RESTAURANT REVIEW – House of chicken
A French name and Lebanese recipes add up to California fusion at Chicken Maison
There are at least a dozen Lebanese restaurants in the South Bay, though you wouldn’t know that from driving past some of them. Many are named after their specialty, which is called franrej when you order it on the streets of Beirut or Tyre. Here we call it roast chicken marinated with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, allspice, and other herbs. Turn that bird on a rotisserie, serve it up with hummus, tabbouleh, and perhaps some stuffed grape leaves, and you have a traditional Mediterranean feast.
One of the most successful purveyors of Lebanese–style chicken is Chicken Maison, which started in Torrance ten years ago and now has five locations. They stand out both for the variety and inventiveness of their menu, which goes far beyond just chicken.
Chicken is the basis of this place’s fame, so let’s start there. There’s a tradeoff with rotisserie chicken: to get that crisp skin that some people enjoy, you have to cook it long enough that the wings and legs are slightly dry. They don’t do that here, so the meat is very moist, the skin soft but full of flavor. Neither garlic, pepper, or herbs dominate, but chicken subtly modified by all of those – it’s simple and direct.
If you do like your chicken with a more assertive flavor, other options are available – a lemon-basil sauce or a spicy lemon-garlic sauce that is almost explosive. The garlic and chili in that sauce are powerful, but not in a way that mimics the widely copied sriracha – there are citrusy and vinegary rather than fruity notes, and the garlic flavor is bold. There are also plenty of chopped scallions in there, so there’s a sharp oniony kick. You can get this sauce on the side, and that’s what I’d recommend the first time you order it, because it’s too sharp for some people. By comparison, the creamy garlic sauce that comes with just about everything you order here is very smooth and mellow, tasty but less bold than I expected.
Those chickens are available on a plate with sides, in pita, over pasta or salad, and in various other ways as described on the specials board. It’s a treat however you have it – I have visited many times and it has never been overcooked or dry. The skinless chicken kebabs have been slightly more uneven – they were fine the first time I ordered them, dry and flavorless the next time. The kebab that really impresses me here is their kofta, ground beef with onion, herbs, and spices – it’s a fat cylinder of smoky meatiness, and it’s always perfect. The fat in the ground beef may be why these always come out perfect – the chicken breast used for kebabs has no such protection and suffers when even slightly overcooked.
Salmon and gyros are available, but I haven’t tried either; I have ordered their falafel and liked it. As is the case at any Lebanese restaurant, vegetarians can dine well here – the cuisine is rich in meatless items.
While I’m on the subject of entrees, you should always check the specials board, since there are some great deals that don’t appear on the online menu – perhaps they’re only offered at this location. My favorite so far is the spicy chicken leg special for only seven dollars – six legs and two sides in that sauce that makes you think your fillings might melt. Another excellent item is the half-chicken in ginger-garlic sauce, though there’s so much finely chopped ginger in this that it’s almost another vegetable rather than a sauce. If you like a blast of ginger, this will send you into orbit – if not, steer clear.
The side dishes are mostly standards like hummus, potato salad, and simple vegetable dishes. I tend towards the grape leaves and hummus. They also serve a mild lentil soup not available as a free side with meals, but should be considered as an entrée on its own.
No alcohol is served, but the usual fountain drinks are available along with both regular and mint tea – the latter tea is the thing to get. It’s refreshing, fits the traditions of the rest of the meal, and refills are free.
The ambiance at Chicken Maison is pleasant for a fast food restaurant, but this isn’t a place to linger over a meal; the place is always near capacity at the popular dining hours and tables don’t stay vacant long. It’s a tribute to the popularity of Lebanese cuisine, and to places like this that serve it quickly and at a moderate cost.
Chicken Maison is at 2709 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, near Pic and Save Big Lots – parking in lot. Open Mon. – Sat. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. – closed Sun. Also in Torrance, Gardena, and Rolling Hills – opening times may vary. Inexpensive, no alcohol served, many vegan options. Partial menu at chickenmaison.com, phone 310-725-0035.