This hidden North Austin cafe might be the next big thing
This month’s Hidden Gem is certainly as tucked away as a place could be. Chicken Lollypop, one of the few spots in town serving Indo-Chinese food, is a tiny kitchen behind a counter at the back of the East Braker Lane Food Mart, just off I-35 on Braker Lane.
However, owner Immie Shaikh has managed to accumulate quite the fan base in the 15 months since he first opened Chicken Lollypop. In fact, one morning in mid-March, he arrived to find a mass of people in the store, where they’d been waiting since 9 am.
“I made my way inside and I said, ‘What kind of a group are you guys?’ and they said, ‘No, we are not a group!’” It turned out that the crowd had come because Yahoo had listed his little spot as the best Chinese food in Texas. “We didn’t know we could make it to that level,” says Shaikh, who was cooking by himself that day.
“It’s a small kitchen but I didn’t want to get started with a big one, borrowing money from anyone,” he explains. “No investors ... I didn’t want to depend on anybody. I wanted to be self-reliant, so I started alone. As you say, ‘no guts, no glory'!”
Shaikh grew up in Bombay and has been cooking his whole life. He moved here eight years ago, hoping to eventually start his own business, but he decided to gain some hospitality experience in this country first. He began by working at a luxury hotel downtown, where he went on to hold roles in almost every department.
“I wanted to see how the American mind works,” he says. “I didn’t want to start the business right away. I wanted to see how we should be behaving in front of the customers, how we should be respectful to the customers.”
His idea for Chicken Lollypop started with the namesake dish, an Indo-Chinese appetizer consisting of Frenched chicken legs brined in sea salt, then marinated in four difference sauces for four hours each (up to a 16 hour marinade), before they are fried and tossed in a sauce. Currently, he makes 600 chicken lollypops a day and typically sells out by mid-afternoon.
“A lot of people make the chicken lollypop, but not this way,” says Shaikh. “My recipe is top secret ... A man came here and said ‘Give to me the chicken lollypop recipe and tell me how much [money] you want.’ He wanted to do the chicken lollypop in a drive-thru like Short Stop. I said no.”
It is clear Shaikh takes much pride in his food and his work. He arrives early in the morning to prep for hours before opening, making all his own sauces, chutneys, paneer and naan from scratch. “What we do here is everything fresh. We don’t make and keep anything. No compromise,” he affirms.
He keeps his small space tidy and visibly shiny. “I like everything clean, you know,” Shaikh explains. “The main reason we eat food is to be healthy. Health is important to me. I don’t even touch money here.” After the meal, he writes up a ticket for diners to bring to the front register for payment. “We don’t let people pay before eating the food. We make sure they pay with a smile, happily,” he says.
Though Shaikh started Chicken Lollypop as a takeout window, he received so many requests for seating from his regulars, he obliged. Now, a small cluster of tables is available for those who want to dine in.
Patrons can also take their pick from the wall of beverages lining the coolers of the store, including a wide variety of craft beers in both six packs and bombers. Argus Cidery’s Fermentables line, New Belgium Skinny Dip, Shiner Ruby Redbird and O’Dell’s Tree Shaker would all be great accompaniments to his dishes, which have elements of sweet and savory — and heat if you like it.
Outside of his cultishly popular chicken lollypops, naan wraps are Shaikh’s biggest lunchtime seller. He cooks chicken, paneer or shrimp in his Shezwan sauce (a chutney made with ginger, garlic and onion), then folds it into a fresh piece of naan, topped with green chutney, lettuce and tomato. “I designed it in a manner that you get good carbs, good vegetables and good proteins,” he says.
Shaikh’s menu also includes a good cross-section of popular Indo-Chinese dishes like sweet and sour paneer (which has good depth and is neither too sweet or sour), a bright and spicy Chicken 65, and zingy chili shrimp. His fried rice comes in many varieties: curry, Manchurian, Shezwan, garlic, ginger and chili. Fried rice can be ordered with a protein of your choosing. Dishes are elevated by the notable freshness of seasonal vegetables like green beans and green onions.
“A lot of people own restaurants, but their food is not fresh. They make it in big batches and put it inside the cooler,” says Shaikh. “But that is not what I want here ... We’re not here just to make money. I’m building a brand actually. I’m not just selling food.”
Next on the horizon, Shaikh wants to expand Chicken Lollypop to include a food truck. He’s currently weighing his options for trucks and locations around town.
“A lot of investors are coming in now, telling me to invest this much money and that much money. But how I look at the restaurant business is Triple C. A child is born and the first thing it needs in the first year is the cradle. The second year, the kid is crawling — that’s the second C. And the third year, you get some comfort because the baby is growing and it’s walking. This is the same thing for every business.”
Where is Chicken Lollypop at this moment? Shaikh contemplates this with a pause, slowly nodding. “I am crawling now,” he says with a smile.