At a certain point on Dominion Rd the smell hits you. You're almost at the traffic lights. You inhale. You very, very badly want potato and gravy and two pieces of original recipe. Don't do it.
A little before (or a little after) you hit KFC, you'll find FryDay — a Taiwanese eatery that serves crunchy chicken cutlets the size of your face.
Big chicken is, well, huge in Taiwan. One of the country's most famous chains, Hot Star Large Fried Chicken, claims to sell 3000 serves a day and recently opened an outpost in California.
FryDay's offering is more modest.
It sits on the cheap(ish) and cheerful end of the price spectrum, though some effort has gone into the aesthetic — concrete, a faux grass feature wall and 44-gallon drums make a reasonable bid for semi-industrial chic. To be honest, on a freezing evening, the fit-out also said "cold". It was some time before we removed our jackets.
Warm your soul with beef noodle soup. Slightly sweeter and swampier than pho, what it lacks in citrus zing and fresh herbs it makes up for with a rich, spicy depth. Star anise, five spice, maybe some cinnamon? I asked for the specifics. "Lots," confirmed the waitperson. "Lots of spices."
In this Taiwanese staple the meat is kept chunky and slow-cooked — all melty connective tissue and just a little lip-smacking fat — and the noodles are wheat, not rice. They have a ramen-like springiness the Taiwanese call "QQ". It's the bouncy texture you get in a good fish ball or even (to put it in a New Zealand context) an old-school jet aeroplane lolly. I love it. When your food almost literally sticks to your teeth, you eat more mindfully.
"Do you make your own noodles?" I asked. "Too much work!" was the reply and having recently had a go at the prolonged kneading and rolling and cutting of a homemade version, I was inclined to agree.
Our noodle bowl ($14) came with bok choy, turnip and chunks of boarding school-soft carrot. The broth was added table-side. You can order a fried chicken version of this dish — the couple sitting beside us on the long banquette did just that, alternating crunchy bites with dipped and sodden mouthfuls. It was a Saturday night at a Dominion Rd chicken and noodle joint and romance was so totally not dead.
FryDay does a bunch of different chicken fillet flavours and toppings: lemon, barbecue, chilli, cheese and "rice pops". Once, when I was 9 years old, my mum went to hospital for a week and Dad made us "KFC" for dinner. Years later, I found out he'd crushed up some Weet-Bix and added something from every Gregg's herb and spice packet he could find in the pantry. It was unbelievably delicious. But I'm a grown-up now. I'm not ordering chicken with rice pops. I'll have mine with cheese, thanks.
It was weird. The chicken was salty, sweet and slightly spicy. The cheese was gooey. I feel it would have tasted better with a hangover or, potentially, four to five hours before a hangover.
FryDay is not licensed. James ordered the mung bean paste with milk ($7) and said it tasted like mung bean paste with milk, but nice. My warm four seasons ching tea ($6) in a tall plastic glass was super-sweet. Definitely ask about sugar content before choosing from the drinks menu.
We'd ordered a gua bao and it was fine if you don't mind your red onion sliced extremely thick, but at $10 it wasn't the best (or cheapest) example of a steamed bun. Do get the kimchi waffle fries ($12) because the ferment is really pungent and spicy. I've seen this dish described as "epic" in online reviews, and as far as waffle fries go, I'd agree.
Our final dish was a $12 bowl of pork belly rice. The meat had been braised tender, the fat rendered soft and toothsome. Bean sprouts and cabbage gave a gentle crunch, and a sprinkle of five spice and a slosh of soy upped the savouriness. I could eat this kind of comfort for days on end. FryDay is no KFC, or even my dad's KFC — but that is no bad thing.