It is easy to be skeptical about food halls. They often shoot for quantity rather than quality, and some charge such prohibitive fees that vendors can’t make the model work economically. They’re often less exciting than they sound. And it is strange that the classic shopping mall food court has been reinvented as something trendy, cool, and destination-worthy.
Downtown Dallas’ Exchange Food Hall, though, is doing things right. They have attracted a lineup of top-tier locally-owned vendors like Revolver Taco Lounge, Easy Slider, ZaLat Pizza, and La Duni. Now they’ve scored a—so sorry for this pun—chicken coup: Josh Harmon’s stall Birdie.
What kind of chicken? All of the above: fried, Nashville, katsu, and, in the coming weeks, grilled yakitori. Harmon previously operated a Fort Worth spot called Birdie Bop with a similar concept. The Tennessee native has long had a grasp on how Asian flavors combine with those of the American South. He loves to experiment with different forms of pickling and revels in shared produce like okra and cabbage.
Since both cultures are famous for their fried chicken—well, here’s Birdie.
In a way, this is Harmon’s comeback story. Before the pandemic, he was gaining acclaim at his Deep Ellum restaurant Junction Craft Kitchen. Junction closed due to behind-the-scenes tensions, the pandemic hit, Harmon’s next big job at the Belmont Hotel fell through because of the health crisis, and the chef left Dallas for a while, working in New York, consulting, and taking private gigs.
“I had such a bad taste in my mouth after all of my fine dining experience here,” Harmon told me at the Exchange Hall, after I devoured a foolish amount of chicken katsu sandwich on Texas toast, plus a side bowl of kimchi. “It just didn’t go for me the way I wanted it to go. When I started to think about doing something again, I was like, I want to do something super focused and I want to put out the food I’ve always put out, maybe on a larger level. Birdie was my first step to start doing fast-casual but with the things we normally do.”
The phrase “things we normally do” here means high-end craft in a fast-casual product. All of Birdie’s fried chicken is brined in sugar, salt, and koji; Harmon says that koji helps to reduce a meat’s grain, producing tenderness and a consistent cook temperature. On the side, you’ll find housemade kimchi, a variety of pickles, and a potato salad with so much caramelized onion and dill that I can’t imagine going back to a regular scoop.
There’s a lot more coming at Birdie. There will be grab-and-go sandwiches and musubi. Harmon wants to do a mixed plate with katsu chicken, rice, Japanese curry sauce, and macaroni salad. The biggest change will be composed sandwich dishes, instead of a make-your-own formula.
“We have one sandwich we just tested yesterday,” Harmon told me. “It’s like The O.G. [a classic chicken sandwich] on a brioche, but we have this serrano, pickled bean sprout, cilantro lime slaw. It’s dipped in the sweet honey and it has our miso mustard on it. We’re also toying with our buffalo garlic parm sauce. On the new menu, we have a buffalo garlic parm sandwich with iceberg lettuce.”
Yakitori chicken will be grilled over white oak coals. Eventually, when it becomes easier to source wings—which have become scarce in the supply chain—Harmon plans to serve them whole. He also acquired a frozen drink machine to make Kool-Aid mixes and a tap which will pour, in his words, “super sweet tea, really sweet, like the tea I get when I go to see my mom.”
Birdie is just getting started, and the Exchange Hall itself is a relatively new phenomenon. Downtown office workers and residents had better hope they’re around for a long time. This could be a milestone in downtown Dallas’ lunch-eating history.