Sit outside your comfort zone because the burgers and hot-sauced birds are worth it, says reviewer Kim Knight.
264 Karangahape Rd
Ph: (09) 300 3060
WE THOUGHT: 15 - Good
WE SPENT: $69
There are eight million fried chicken stories in Auckland city. This will be two of them. Or one of them. I don't know, I got confused.
In brief, you can get chicken at Free Bird but you can't get wine. You can get wine at Charlie Baxter's, but you can't get food - unless you want the chicken from Free Bird. This is less of an Auckland story, perhaps, than an only-on-K-Rd story. Our food was literally carried down the street to our table. I've tried really hard but I just can't play this scene in Parnell.
An important detail upfront: the chicken is free-range and so are the pork ribs. The hot sauce might keep your lower oesophageal sphincter awake at night - but your conscience can snooze.
I suspect Free Bird is geared to the take-out crowd. You know that time you took a 16-hour bus ride in 40-degree heat with a small goat or maybe a child in the overhead locker? It was more comfortable than this restaurant. There's a good chance the Free Bird booth seats might have once belonged to a bus. Now, they are barely padded bright orange vinyl bench seats nailed on to a couple of crates with a severe tilt towards the table. Next stop: the osteopath.
Really, you could probably only squeeze a dozen people in here, depending how many were standing at the AC/DC-themed pinball machine. Unless you are naturally bendy and look freakin' amazing under fluoro lights, go next door. Go next door early enough and the happy hour wines are only $6.
It was dark at Charlie Baxter's, which exactly suited the food they ferried from Free Bird. Yes, it's a chicken shop but we were starting with burgers. Mine was called A Ride with Graeme. Nobody seemed to know who Graeme was, so I googled the phrase in case I was missing a crucial cultural reference and all I can say is don't take everything you read on the internet as gospel. Sometimes men lie about the size of, um, stuff.
Anyway, that burger. Glossy brioche bun. Thick, juicy patty. Bacon. Lascivious tongues of pickle. It was a $16 creamy mushroom sauce-soaked epitome and I don't care who saw me licking my own face afterwards. James had The Custom - more cheese, more pickles, more caramelised onion. Also $16 and also sublime.
The food is served in those red plastic baskets that have become a universal signifier for Deep Fried America. It is best eaten in the company of people who carry wet wipes. Our table was a hot mess and we hadn't even got to the hot-sauced chicken. There's a photo on Facebook of a Free Bird worker flouring the chook; they're wearing a face mask and the caption references Breaking Bad. How addictive? We got a quarter bird ($11) and I wish we'd got a whole.
The chicken is plump, the coating is crisp and we added insult to artery injury via a basting of Frank's hot butter sauce. This is habit-forming heat. Enough chilli to proceed with caution, tempered by a sour piquancy that commands second-third-fourth bites.
Of course we had the onion rings ($9). Thin-cut with a batter so crispy it fell like fatty confetti. Pass the wet wipes, please (and don't rub your eyes post-chicken).
We paused to Shazam the soundtrack (Alpha Male Tea Party) and then spent some time debating the merits of "math rock". According to the internet, it's a musical genre that is quite hard to describe, but I'll give it a go: Awful. Go next door for The Kinks and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The seats aren't comfortable but the playlist is. At Free Bird Proper, we finished our night with a chocolate milkshake. Replete. Complete. It had been the best of times and the best of times.