Everybody crosses the road for James Leggett's jerk chicken stand in NoLibs
PEOPLE ARE WILLING to wait for James Leggett's jerk chicken. But that doesn't mean they're willing to be patient.
Being seduced by the Caribbean plumes pumping out of Leggett's drum smoker and not having immediate access to what's inside, after all, is its own brand of sensory punishment. But Leggett has managed to turn his delivery of the bad news - "It ain't ready" - into a special brand of song and dance that's part stand-up act, part stalling tactic and part subtle, scent-aided sales pitch.
"How long till I can get some chicken, homey?" a glassy-eyed young man, clearly enjoying his Friday evening out in Northern Liberties, inquires as he drags himself by Leggett's humble setup at 2nd and Laurel streets.
"Ten, 15 more minutes," Leggett, upbeat in a backward camo ballcap and black apron, replies, his wry smile indicating he understands how drunkenness can dramatize a case of the munchies. "It needs some color. It's 12:08 right now . . . I'd say at least by 12:20."
The guy shakes his head and wanders off into the night, but the grillmaster's OK with it. There are close to a dozen more cash-in-hand customers, in various stages of sobriety, hanging out within a few paces, doing what his customers do best.
"It's like I tell my daughters," Leggett, a father of four, says to no one in particular. "Count to 300. Twice."
That's just one of a million folksy cracks the cook has in his holster to calm the growling stomachs that have been tracking him here since 2010. (Another favorite: "Right now, the chicken's in Camden, paying the toll.")
It's all in a late, late night's work for the spicy, smoky operation he calls Side of the Road.
Born to barbecue
Originally from Brooklyn, Leggett, 59, has always been a cook. A self-described "city boy with southern exposure," thanks to childhood summers spent below the Mason-Dixon, he has held a daytime job in the telecommunications industry for decades, barbecuing on the side as a hobby that's turned into a second career in the twilight hours.
In Philly since 2004, Leggett got his start at Cherashore Park at 10th and Olney, using a Wal-Mart grill to prepare chicken for locals gathered by the baseball diamonds and basketball courts.
"If I sold 15 pounds, I was giddy," said Leggett, who can now rip through more than 200 pounds a night if he's posting up at multiple locations.
Leggett eventually graduated to a spot on Germantown Avenue, where word-of-mouth helped Side of the Road gain local acclaim. (Drivers on SEPTA's 23 bus were fond of pulling up to the grill, handing Leggett cash out of the window and picking up their orders on their next go-'round.) In addition to Friday and Saturday nights in NoLibs, Leggett has a standing second-Friday stint at 38th and Lancaster and has been building up his catering and event business.
Sweet and hot
Leggett recently fed musicians backstage at the Roots Picnic his no-nonsense signature: generous portions of Jamaican-tinged dark-meat chicken, marinated with zippy kickers like allspice, garlic, scotch bonnet and habanero peppers, and encased in a beautifully lacquered mahogany skin caramelized by serious fruitwood smoke.
Cut up on a well-loved butcher block that's actually just the brick-thick ring of a tree trunk, the meat lands on slices of bread and gets doused in your pick of homemade sauces, which include Leggett's signature jerk ("That's my disclaimer sauce. It's hot"), plus sweeter, Southern-inspired options made with blueberry, peach and mango.
Though expansion into a permanent location is something Leggett has considered - "It's thrown in my face all the time," Leggett said - weekend street vending, for now, is still a constant.
In Northern Liberties, he knows he'll sell out, because he knows he'll get a crowd.
Last Friday was no exception. They started materializing what seemed like seconds after Leggett's all-black Ram 1500 pickup arrived, smoker latched to the back, a shade before midnight. Though he's got a day job, and Leggett concedes his two gigs are "bullying each other," he doesn't mind staying up.
"In a former life," he worked as a DJ, and "it was nothing to play until 3:30 in the morning."
Waiting for James
Bryan Skyy, sous chef at the nearby burger joint PYT, gets someone to cover for him on the line so he can run over and pick up chicken for his crew.
"It makes us look forward to coming to work Friday and Saturday nights," he said. "We know James is going to be here."
Skyy's co-worker Janean Malloy threw her hazard lights on at the corner and hopped out of her car to get her post-shift fix. "I tried it out and I was hooked," she said. "I've gotten to the point where I don't even use sauce. It's whatever he's doing beforehand."
Donald Brown, a contractor from North Philly, headed out with a big group of friends to Cavanaugh's River Deck, after which a pit stop at Leggett's smoker was imperative. "I'm actually supposed to be at the gym right now," said Brown, who recently shed a bunch of weight. (He wasn't indulging that night; different story for his buddies, who track Leggett's whereabouts on social media.) "But good food will make you travel anywhere."
"My car's on blinkers!" said Chris Brown, an IT project manager, gesturing to his brand-new Ford Edge wedged into another not-quite-legal spot across 2nd Street from Leggett. He, along with brother-in-law Robert Lofton, had also made an evening of it at Cavanaugh's and promised his wife he would bring hot chicken back to her.
Last time she requested it? "It didn't get to the parking lot," Brown admitted guiltily. "Our entire night transpired because of this guy right here. You can't go home without seeing this guy."
Leggett has his loyal regulars, but olfactory appeal alone draws in first-timers, too. Michael Gredzik, a Polish citizen attending optometry school here, waited patiently with his friend Kris Walski, a field organizer for gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf. Gozde Onat, a Turkish au pair from Germany currently working in Lower Moreland, chatted up the crowd with her friend Cynthia Molina, a fellow au pair from Argentina.
Time to eat
But lively conversation and Leggett's head-nodding soundtrack - mostly old-school hip-hop and R&B, like Heavy D and Soul For Real - can only assuage a famished throng for so long.
When it's time, it's time, and Leggett emphatically throws open the lid protecting his latest post-2 a.m. batch, eliciting chatter and cheers from the sidewalk gallery. "All right guys, let's do this," he announces. "I'm getting them laser-beam eyes."
There's no visible order to the queue, but people behave, since they know they're about to get what's coming to them.
At one point, Leggett's cell rings, and he picks it up without slowing down everything else he's doing. It's not clear who it is, but it is clear the person needs detailed directions. Leggett runs through it, ending the conservation with the only thing the caller really needs to know.
"Second and Laurel," he says. "You'll smell me before you see me."
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @drewlazor.