CHICKEN NUGGETS. Morsels cut small and fried, a dish elemental and primal, as popular as french fries. In the South Bay, the large south Indian community serves chicken 65, a particular species of chicken nugget marinated in chile powder, turmeric and ginger, then laced with red food coloring and curry leaves.
It’s a simple and ubiquitous meat snack similar to Korean fried chicken or Chinese 1,000 chile chicken.
Supposedly borrowed from China, it graces scores of Silicon Valley menus. Why the number 65? There are literally hundreds of theories. No one knows and everyone who says they know is a liar.
In an attempt to survey the area’s offerings, I have been reacquainted with the incredible depth of Indian food in the South Bay. From Chettinad curries and Hyderabad dum biryani to Indo-Chinese favorites such as Gobi Manchurian, the Silicon Valley is brimming with excellent south Indian choices and few of the rote standard Indian restaurant menus.
There are two distinct styles of Chicken 65.
The deep-fried version is a true bar snack item, eaten with the fingers, and best with a cold, crisp lager. When overly fried, the dish simply tastes of oil and fry. As it cools, the subtle underlying spices emerge. I think it’s best eaten a day later.
The softer, less fried version allows the marinade and the yogurt to survive to the table. The yogurt makes the dish richer, and the spices are far more alive in the mouth. In this form, the dish is less appetizer and more main course, best served over rice or with bread. I prefer this version.
In order to eat at so many different restaurants, I ordered take-out and fished a bite out of the to-go container in the parking lot to taste it as it would be served in the restaurant. I ordered each with standard spice, although the deep-fried versions would be better ordered spicy. As each restaurant was sampled only once, this list should be a guide to your own exploration.
Aachi Appakadai: This is a cozy spot that looks like an old adobe-style Mexican restaurant. The portion was large, and the restaurant gives a 5 percent discount for cash. Of the deep-fried versions, this one was more succulent and less crisp, allowing the spice to shine through. Price: $8.49. 3075 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, 408.243.2778.
Anjappar: Located in the Milpitas Square complex, Anjappar’s atmosphere is pleasant and bustling. The place specializes in Chettinad dishes and has a reputation for very hot food. The chicken 65 used the lightest frying and the highest spice level of all the deep-fried versions. Price: $8.99. 458 Barber Lane, Milpitas, 408.435.5500.
Arka: Arka was the most modern and upscale restaurant I visited. The menu includes tandoori, southern dosas and Belgian and local beer. The chicken 65 was spicy, and for a fried preparation it had more taste than most, but the portion size was small. The preparation was perfect for bar snacking, and Arka had the only bar atmosphere of the sample. Price: $7.95. 725 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Sunnyvale, 408.733.2752.
Athidhi: This restaurant was full of patrons and had a homey, welcoming feel. The menu has Indo-Chinese dishes as well as less common dishes. The chicken 65 was overly crisp, thus removing much of the spice, but allowing the chicken taste to come through. Price: $6.99. 727 S. Wolfe Road, Sunnyvale, 408.773.8412.
Fusion9: Fusion9 claims to be the only Indian drive-through in North America. Whether true or not, the portion was large, and prepared well in the softer, stir-fried fashion. The setting is reminiscent of a hamburger chain that has seen better days. Use the drive-through. Price: $5.99. 2277 El Camino, Santa Clara, 408.296.2277.
Mayuri: Mayuri is a large and well-appointed restaurant I’ve long enjoyed. Avoid the Wednesday dinner buffet but try the dosas, which are served with a sauce of unusual heat and complexity. Atmosphere is like a comfortable Midwestern coffee house or Denny’s. Alas, the deep-fried style chicken 65 was not a standout. Price: $7.95. 2230 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, 408.248.9747.
Sneha: Sneha has been selling chicken 65 for decades. Sneha’s version is redder than any other and the soft “stir-fried” preparation has a spicy bite and rich taste. The portion was large, the size of a full entree. The dish packed a complex punch and a highly addictive peculiar soft texture. Price: $7.95. 1214 Apollo Way, Sunnyvale, 408.481.0700.
These are but a few South Bay Indian restaurants that offer chicken 65. Although I had long known of the Indian food brilliance in Sunnyvale, I was amazed at the quantity and range of restaurants. From high end to drive-through, you owe it to yourself to try a few new places—and the chicken 65.