A new Baltimore restaurant is serving a riff on the chicken box — and it costs $21.
At Square Meal, the floor-level restaurant of newly opened Hotel Revival in Mount Vernon, the “Ro ‘Faux’ Box” substitutes two buttermilk-marinated fried quails from South Carolina for the classic fried chicken, swaps Western fries for well-seasoned, fried tri-colored baby potatoes, and accompanies the meal with a homemade hot sauce, housemade pickles and a dense, crispy, buttery biscuit — all served on a wooden board.
Though the name is a play on the fried chicken box served at convenience store chain Royal Farms, the dish is quite a departure from Baltimore’s signature carryout staple.
The chicken box is known for being quick, tasty and cheap — a takeout meal that typically includes fried chicken wings, a generous portion of French fries (often a wedge-shaped, "Western" variety) and bread or a dinner roll, packaged into a signature to-go box made of cardboard or plastic foam. It usually costs no more than $8.
Some residents have been puzzled by the restaurant’s modifications to the dish, which has been an indulgence in Baltimore since at least the 1930s. It has been linked to the “shoebox special” packed lunches that became a necessity during black migration in the early to mid-20th century.
Mount Vernon resident Jessica Douglas shared a screen shot of the menu item in a Facebook post and asked, “Is nothing sacred?”
“$7 max is luxury for a box [for] me,” wrote another Facebook user in a comment.
On Twitter, many users referred to the meal as a “gentrified chicken box” (or “gentriFRIED”) for the nearly tripling in price and change of ingredients of a staple beloved among the local black community.
“Not even the Chicken box escapes the hand of gentrification,” tweeted one user.
“There's no need to make everything fake ‘gourmet,’” tweeted another.
Others thought the use of quail was innovative.
“A lot of people are mad at that fancy chicken box but I would like to try it. I think it is neat,” wrote one Twitter user.
“They're using more expensive ingredients... quail, etc. It costs more because it's a totally different experience than Popeye's,” another tweeted.
But Hotel Revival Chef Wilbur Cox, a Highlandtown native, said he understands the allure of the classic chicken box.
He said he crafted the Square Meal dish, available on the lunch menu, based on memories of his childhood — he and his friends devoured chicken boxes from Royal Farms during downtime at football practices. The meal is still his go-to on the way home after a night of drinking, he said.
Cox’s ode to the dish will be served in signature boxes in the hotel’s karaoke rooms when they open to the public in May.
The higher price tag, he said, is due to the more expensive ingredients and handcrafted additions, like a homemade hot sauce and hot sauce powder.
“You're getting probably the best bird on the market. You get two of them, and they're roughly $3 to $4 a piece — so that's the reason why it's a little more expensive. I think people are like, ‘The RoFo Box is meant to be cheap,’ ” he said, which is why the restaurant incorporated the word “faux” in the meal’s title.
And this is not the first or last adaptation of a locally inspired meal that Cox will do, he said.
The chef, who has been crafting Square Meal’s seasonal menu for a little over a year, also incorporated a smoked “pit beef” sandwich on the lunch menu, which features locally smoked beef bottom round, a horseradish-creme fraiche sauce and house-soured onions, served on a potato bun.
Next up, he said, might be an upscale version of lake trout.
"It's working-class food that we're just dressing up a little. That's all it is," he said.
So, how was it?
It was clear Cox put thought into the recreation of the “Ro ‘Faux’ Box.” The buttermilk batter and skin on the fried quail was flavorful, with a nice kick of spice. Since quail is a smaller bird than a chicken and gamy in texture, it lacked the robust and succulent texture and taste of a fried chicken wing or leg. The wings themselves are much smaller and softer, and have less meat on the bone.
The fried baby potatoes, however, were a stand-out. They were well-seasoned and most reminiscent of what might be served with an actual chicken box.
The side of pickles, though not standard for a traditional chicken box, added a nice touch of sweetness to the savory and salty flavors of the meal, and the crispy, buttery biscuit was a nice substitute for the buttered dinner roll that comes in a Royal Farms chicken box. But it needed a little something more. We asked for something sweet (The menu, sadly, did not include a half-and-half, the sugary mix of lemonade and sweet iced tea that is often the perfect companion to a chicken box), so staff brought Chef Cox’s homemade cherry jam, which really set the biscuit off.
The presentation was beautiful — so much so that I forgot to dig in fingers-first and instead went for a knife and fork. I had some difficulty navigating a quail wing into the hot sauce with a fork before I remembered what I was eating.
But the “faux” box is an “ode” to the chicken box for a reason: Baltimore’s original chicken box — in all of its inexpensive, informal and delicious glory — can never be replaced.
This article has been updated.
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