Honey Butter Fried Chicken’s Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp have celebrated past birthdays with tiny gestures, perhaps selling chicken sandwiches for $1.
But this year, the Avondale restaurant turns 10 years old, requiring something special. Next month, Honey Butter Fried Chicken will host a birthday party open to 100 ticketholders. They’ve also brought in a big gun. Retired chef Doug Sohn’s jersey is coming down from the rafters for a Wednesday, June 14 event, called the Roscoe Rewind. Roscoe Street was the road, a five-minute walk, that linked Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Hot Doug’s, Sohn’s gourmet hot dog stand that closed in 2014.
Cikowski and Kulp looked up to Sohn before opening up their restaurant. The two say they modeled the friendly customer service at Honey Butter after what Sohn provided: “We used to go to Hot Doug’s in our culinary school uniforms,” Cikowski says. “We knew him first loosely as a mentor.”
Honey Butter workers dropped off chicken that October 2014 day when Hot Doug’s closed showing how much the restaurant meant to them. Sohn recalls the gesture, though he says his staff snatched up the chicken before he had a chance: “If it weren’t for Ina (Pinkney) bringing me breakfast, I would have died that day,” Sohn jokes.
The trio says they’ve been blessed by support within Chicago’s restaurant community. Kulp name-drops Parachute, the pioneering Korean restaurant down the street. Cikwoski calls Sohn and Smoque BBQ’s Barry Sorkin “their North Stars,” as guides for how to run a venue. Sorkin and his team this month opened a second restaurant, Smoque Steak, down the street.
For the last eight years, Sohn has observed and offered advice to Kulp and Cikowski as they two navigated the restaurant business. They endured the pandemic while opening a second restaurant, TriBecca’s Sandwich Shop. Sohn continues to be helpful with advice, whether by walking dogs with Cikowski or catching up with Kulp over breakfast. He’s keeping a low profile, not wanting to lend his name to too many events, but Cikowski and Kulp are exceptions. They’ll serve Doug’s most infamous sausage, the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli and foie gras mousse — fans will remember that Sohn skirted the city’s 2006 ban on foie gras and eventually paid a fine. Sohn’s Atomic Sausage with raspberry-honey mustard and smoked gouda will also be available. Honey Butter began serving french fries earlier this year, and will do so again frying them with duck fat and duck cracklings. The duck fat fries at Hot Doug’s, honorary named for one of Sohn’s high school English teachers, Greg Baker from the Latin School of Chicago, were a signature item.
Honey Butter Fried Chicken emerged from Cikowski and Kulp’s insanely popular underground dinners. Sunday Dinner Club debuted in 2005 as an intimate experience where parties sit at communal tables. The underground dinner aspect gave way to ticketed events hosted in the space above Honey Butter Fried Chicken. It’s the type of business that isn’t pandemic-friendly. The duo pivoted to takeout, but as their other projects took precedence, the club became too taxing. They’ve placed Sunday Dinner Club on indefinite hiatus. If it weren’t to ever return, Cikowski says it would be a new format. They’ll recognize Sunday Dinner Club’s history by serving the club’s classic burgers during the birthday event. Caramel corn provides more nostalgia. Kulp and Cikowski recall handing out free samples on the street during an Avondale Restaurant Crawl, to drum up some buzz Honey Butter before the restaurant first opened.
Meanwhile, Sohn has kept his restaurant’s name alive at Wrigley Field where Hot Doug’s continues to make fans happy in the bleachers. He says he doesn’t really think about creating new hot dogs anymore. But he does miss being an active part of the chef community: “It was such a special time being part of this group of just talented and joyous people,” he says.
Avondale has changed. More restaurants are opening like Thattu, Eden, and Metropolitan Brewing Company. Sohn laughs as he recalls how real estate agents used to bill the neighborhood as “West Roscoe Village,” trying to make it sound more attractive, and connecting it to the more respectable “Roscoe Village.” It was the same in Roscoe Village, home of the original Hot Doug’s before a fire forced a relocation. Real estate agents would list properties as “West Lakeview,” in a similar fashion: “I should have bought a house in 2013,” Kulp says.
The party is just the start of the celebration as Honey Butter will offer several specials leading up to its birthday on September 14. However, tickets are limited to 100 and are on sale now.
The Roscoe Rewind, celebrating 10 years of Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Wednesday, June 14 at Honey Butter Fried Chicken, 3361 N. Elston Avenue, tickets available via Tock.