Fried chicken has had a glamorous few months in the food spotlight. Momofuku's David Chang took New York by storm last summer with his spicy Fuku chicken sandwiches, and Shake Shack introduced its "Chicken Shack" with pickles and buttermilk mayonnaise to its Brooklyn locations in July, followed by a nationwide rollout of the crispy sandwich in January.
During that time, Steve Murray was setting up his Cheek's Chicken food truck in Manchester, mostly unaware of how the trend was progressing in the city. He was just looking to make the food he missed from his time living down South: hot, fresh and juicy fried chicken with a variety of sauces; sweet, doughy waffles and sandwiches on hearty, buttery rolls, with plenty of pickles and spicy mayonnaise.
Murray, 31, was born in Florida and moved to Connecticut in middle school when his father's job at Pratt & Whitney took the family to the Northeast. When visiting family in Virginia, he'd make a point to eat the Southern-style chicken he craved and couldn't find easily in New England. He decided he'd make it himself, envisioning Cheek's as "just somewhere you can get a good chicken sandwich on a regular basis," he said. "We were missing that up north. That's what I'm trying to accomplish."
Murray took the leap, leaving a desk job and spending months on research and development, traveling, eating and whipping up "hundreds" of recipes to get the batter and cooking process just right.
"I ate nothing but chicken for six months," he said. He chose to call the business "Cheek's" after his childhood nickname.
By August, the red trailer was open in a Center Street parking lot, serving wings, sandwiches and sweet yeast waffles. Locals found him quickly, and word spread, rapidly enough where he was considering a permanent storefront within weeks.
In January, Cheek's moved into its brick-and-mortar space in the Olcott Shopping Center just steps from his truck's spot, taking over a former pizza shop and allowing Murray to expand his menu and hours immediately. The small restaurant serves mostly take-out, but has indoor picnic-table seating for a handful of guests.
With extended hours, "we were able to hit a whole new demographic," Murray said. "It's opened up a whole new customer base for us." The food truck permit previously only allowed him to vend until 3:30 p.m. six days a week, he said.
Cheek's fried chicken sandwiches ($4.99 to $5.39) are among the restaurant's best sellers, available in a "regular" variety with American cheese, pickles and choice of sauce, and a spicy version with chipotle mayonnaise. The deluxe sandwich has pickles, cheese, lettuce and tomato, and the sandwiches are also available with grilled chicken.
Crispy wings, tenders and bite-sized nuggets are coated with a variety of sweet and savory sauces, from honey garlic to fiery "Carolina reaper." They're available in smaller, snack sizes (5 to 10 pieces for $5.99 and $6.99) and in large-format orders of 40 to 50 pieces ($19.99 to $56.99.) The larger kitchen allows for more side dishes, too, including Cheek's thick and wavy "hash fries" dusted with a secret Cajun-style seasoning, onion rings, mac and cheese and broccoli cheese bites.
The unique Belgian-style Liege waffles ($3.99), made from a sugary yeast dough, boast a gooey, caramelized exterior and are served with simple sprinkles of cinnamon, or indulgently loaded with Nutella or strawberries and whipped cream. Murray's favorite, however, is the housemade honey butter.
"You put that with the waffle that's already yeasty, and a little powdered sugar to make it look good, it's amazing."
Naturally, Murray unites the chicken with the waffles — customers order three-piece "wing n' waffle" or "tender n' waffle" combinations for $6.99.
"I think it's the combination of the salty-sweet," he said of the classic dish. "They just pair so nicely together."
Murray also looks to add pizza to the menu in the next couple of months, and he's working on franchise agreements to bring more Cheek's locations to Connecticut and the rest of New England. He's also hoping to use his truck to do more catering.
"It's been such a wild ride," he said. "[It's] getting those repeat customers, having those people come back and appreciate what you do. Just the experience of it, meeting all these new people, putting something out there that's different. It's exciting."
Cheek's Chicken, 648 Center St. , Manchester, is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. 860-643-4040, cheekschicken.com.