When long-time friends Justin Williams, 28, and Danny Mendoza, 25, moved to Santa Cruz from the San Fernando Valley, they noticed a shortage of late-night food beyond Domino’s delivery. Initially, they considered serving open-face bao, a Chinese steamed bun, and calling themselves “Bomb Ass Buns” to fill the gap. Instead, they ended up with a modern twist on an old-time favorite, a device called an immersion circulator and the name Kickin Chicken.
As one of the latest and cheapest options available for delivery food in Santa Cruz, the service amassed a sizable culinary cult following among local students, families and late-night diners on the westside during its year in business.
The duo’s signature entrée is a take on a southern comfort food also iconic to Los Angeles natives — chicken and waffles. A little bit Roscoe’s and a little bit Santa Cruz, Kickin Chicken’s specialty is using farm-to-table style ingredients with the satisfying decadence of soul food.
Kickin Chicken operates out of the Food Lounge kitchen on Center Street, where other vendors like Lionfish Supperclub and Ty’s Eatery share space in the “incubator kitchen.” Most days, Justin and Danny are there with numerous other chefs, conducting a sort of culinary alchemy that constitutes Santa Cruz’s lesser-known foodie scene.
“There’s a lot of family in most kitchens,” Justin said. “This one is actually really different, because there are a bunch of different businesses in here that are all going through the exact same thing as we are.”
For 12 hours, the chicken is brined in an herbal solution and then cooked in an immersion circulator. This process, known as “sous-vide,” softens the meat to fall-off-the-bone status before it’s dipped in a spicy batter and flash-fried. Once plated with cinnamon cornbread waffles, the dish averages $8.50 a plate and is delivered straight to your door.
The pair make an effort to keep Kickin Chicken’s price point low to remain affordable for college students. They don’t offer napkins or utensils with their meals or charge a delivery fee and have minimal to no food loss.
Such affordability gave rise to a very loyal customer base within the city. Justin said the idea was always to “give a good priced item to build loyal customers.”
“It’s really, really good food and totally worth it for the convenience,” said recent UCSC graduate Garrett Dyer, who became a frequent customer after discovering Kickin Chicken through its Instagram account several months ago. He said delivery options are lacking in Santa Cruz, and he would rather support a local business than a chain company.
Originally open for deliveries from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., the business recently adjusted hours to better fit a growing family-based customer pool. Now, Kickin Chicken is open 6 p.m. to midnight, Tuesday through Friday.
Beyond a cheap price and late delivery times, Justin and Danny’s experimental cuisine attracted attention for its striking originality. Chicken and waffles is the only constant on its menu, with side dishes and desserts offered based on flavors the two are inspired to create each week. In the past, Kickin Chicken served lavender shortbread, beer-poached hot dogs, Frito pie, pressure-cooked banana, and lime jello with pop rocks and raspberry seeds.
One staple of Kickin Chicken is its hot syrup, which combines butter, hot sauce and maple syrup for a strangely satisfying compliment to the main course.
“It was one of our most successful recipes for some odd reason,” said Justin, the mastermind behind its creation. “It just makes sense. People want hot sauce on their chicken, want syrup and butter on their waffles. We were like, ‘let’s put it all together.’”
Kickin Chicken evolved through trial and error, refining its technique over time.
Justin and Danny’s perception of success extends beyond delivery food. Through pop-ups across town and collaboration with other small businesses, Kickin Chicken forged close relationships with groups in Santa Cruz. The best parts of the job are “the connections in the community, meeting new people and having a lot of fun in the kitchen itself,” Danny said.
They donate their excess compost materials and meals to the Homeless Garden Project, and in alliance with breweries and other businesses around town, the two have also held and catered charity events and weddings.
Danny and Justin are interested in opening a location on the east side to serve a broader expanse of the city, and the two eventually plan to franchise. As two millennials finding success without a storefront, Danny and Justin’s motto is unsurprisingly, “We’re serious, but we’re not serious.”