A Taste of Home

A native metro Detroiter living in Brooklyn yearns for the almond boneless chicken of her youth
Photograph by Joe Vaughn // Illustration by Chris Philpot

Every time I come back to the Detroit area to visit family and friends I must have the following: coney dog, square pizza, garlic sauce, and almond boneless chicken.

Although I can now easily get the first three items in New York, I cannot find almond boneless chicken, or ABC for short. And I’ve tried. Shortly after moving to Brooklyn, I went searching for a taste of home in my neighborhood and got some “almond chicken.” Unfortunately I learned the hard way that almond chicken is not the same as almond boneless chicken — a dish I could get only in my home state. When you want something fried and smothered with gravy, stir-fried chicken and vegetables just don’t cut it.

Growing up in the Detroit area, I don’t recall when I first had almond boneless chicken. I didn’t eat it on special occasions; I got it whenever I wanted it because my parents worked at American-Chinese restaurants for all of my life.

When my sister and I were younger, we would request ABC from our mom and eagerly wait until she brought it home. Almond boneless chicken became one of my favorite comfort foods just like it did for many Michiganians.

What makes the ABC dish a comforting food for me is the simple brown gravy generally made with chicken broth, soy sauce, and cornstarch. I’m a sucker for gravy like hipsters are suckers for egg on top of everything. (A fried egg on top of ABC sounds like a good idea, by the way.)

Many of the Chinese restaurants have their own gravy recipe. For example the gravy at my aunt’s humble restaurant in Eastpointe includes pieces of bamboo shoots and water chestnuts while other restaurants include pieces of chicken and diced onions, celery, and/or mushrooms.

My father, who worked as a cook for American-Chinese restaurants around metro Detroit, says he has been making the ABC gravy the same way as when he first started working in Detroit’s Chinatown in the 1970s.

But what makes the dish really satisfying is the double-fried chicken breast, a rare cut in New York’s American-Chinese restaurants that prefer the cheaper thighs. The batter is a mixture of flour, cornstarch, and baking powder, which give the chicken a unique crunch that’s like no other fried chicken I’ve ever had.

Not only does frying the chicken twice make it extra crispy, but it also helps speed up cooking time after you place your order, making the dish a hearty fast food.

The best part about the double-fried chicken is that it stays crispy when you order carryout.

I prefer to eat almond boneless chicken on top of fried or white rice then doused in gravy. Sure, it’s not the prettiest pile in the world, but it’s definitely delicious. Every bite gets a bit of rice, gravy, fried chicken, crisp lettuce, and crunchy almonds. When it comes to my preferred preparation, my relatives’ restaurants in Macomb County are my go-to spots. They all know that war su gai (ABC in Cantonese) is my favorite dish.

Now that I’m living in New York, I wish I had learned how to make it from my parents. When popular New York chef Danny Bowien announced he was serving American-Chinese food at one of his restaurants last year, I almost begged him on Twitter to add ABC on the menu. What stopped me was that I didn’t think he would be familiar with it since he’s not from Detroit.

As a person of Chinese descent, I probably shouldn’t like the American-born dish. There’s nothing really Chinese about it. The few things that make it Chinese is that it was most likely created by a Chinese chef, it’s served with rice, and it’s only offered at Chinese restaurants.

But that’s fine with me and everyone else who loves almond boneless chicken.

Helen Kwong was born and raised in Macomb County and is a research specialist at NBC News. She moved to New York in 2008 and has been missing her favorite Michigan foods and drinks ever since.

Special thanks: The Peterboro, 420 Peterboro St., Detroit; 313-833-1111.

A Dish Reimagined

The almond boneless chicken pictured at right is not the traditional dish you’ll find at most Detroit-area Chinese takeout joints. It’s a modern rendition while staying true to the traditional form, says Brion Wong, who prepares this dish at The Peterboro.

“We’re not even using classical techniques … we’re using the tools at our disposal,” he says. For example, “the poached chicken is put together very much like a soup dumpling, which is a ground meat or fish component that is held together by a gelatinous stock and we use the same procedure” in this take on the classic.

Of course when reimagining a dish that deviates from the norm, there will always be debate.

“I have heard ‘This is the worst thing I have ever eaten.’ I have heard ‘This is the best thing I have ever eaten,’ ” Wong says, adding that through his version of ABC, he hopes to bring people back to a taste or a flavor memory that they’ve had — or introduce them to something new.

The real test?

“I was sitting at the bar the other day and I said to someone else, ’I think the greatest compliment I can ever get is when another Asian person goes like this (nods) and eats and goes ‘mmm.’ ”

Part of our 2016 Food Issue series on iconic Michigan dishes.