When I moved from Los Angeles back to the South, I begrudgingly left behind a handful favorite restaurants. Not that there isn't amazing food in Atlanta, but some of these places just can't be replicated. Whenever I return to California, I have to check each one off my list so that I can stay fully satisfied until my next visit. Many times friends ask if I want to try somewhere new, and I just look at them like they're crazy. Why would I ever want to do a thing like that?
One of those restaurants is the landmark Cuban restaurant Versailles, located on a random strip of Venice Boulevard. When my now-fiancé and I had just started dating, it was the exact midpoint between my house in West Hollywood and his in Venice Beach. The easy-going vibe and delicious food (despite all that garlic!) created the perfect atmosphere for our budding romance. We enjoyed many long and lingering dates there over the next few years, and once we left I knew it would be one of the spots I missed the most.
I have since made many attempts to replicate their famous garlic chicken, so that Walt and I could enjoy it from the comforts of our own home. Unfortunately each time I tried it, something was always off—too much cumin, not enough garlic, not enough sauce—but I always took detailed notes, so that maybe the next time would be a little closer than the last.
Between all my research, and a little happy accident, I can finally say I got it right. I'm talking nailed the sucker! It's not often that I call Walt during the day to tell him about a successful recipe (in fact I never have), but I couldn't keep the excitement to myself. I demanded he leave work immediately to come try it. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the sauce was garlicy, citrusy, and savory all at the same time. It was perfect.
And while I never want to replace the fond memories I have from Versailles, it sure does make life a little easier knowing I can "go back" on a whim, but that all I have to do is turn on my oven. So until next time California...
Braised Chicken with Mojo Sauce
For the brine:
1 (4-5 pound) roasting chicken
1 gallon (16 cups) water, divided
1 cup kosher salt
3 lemons, halved
For the chicken:
1 1/2 cups sour orange juice (preferably La Lechonera)
Juice of one lemon
1 large head of garlic (about 12-15 cloves), peeled
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
1 white onion, peeled and sliced crosswise into thin rings
To brine the chicken, cover the chicken with 12 cups of cold water in a large stock pot. Heat the remaining 4 cups of water over the stovetop or in the microwave until almost boiling. Add the salt and stir until completely dissolved. Add the salted water to the stock pot. Squeeze the juice from the lemons into the water before adding the lemons. Cover and refrigerate the chicken for 8-12 hours, but no longer.
To cook the chicken, combine sour orange juice, lemon juice, garlic, and cumin in a blender and season generously with salt and pepper. Blend on medium to high power until the garlic is pureed and the marinade is foamy, about 1 minute.
Remove the backbone of the chicken and discard. Cut the chicken into 4 pieces (two thighs and drumsticks, two breasts with wings). Place the chickens into two large zipper bags, dividing the marinade between the two. Marinate at room temperature for two hours, flipping the bags occasionally to distribute the liquids. Remove chicken, reserving the marinade for cooking, and thoroughly pat dry. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Heat the cooking oil in large cast iron skillet over medium-high to high heat. Working in two batches, add the chicken, skin side down, and sear until crisp and deep golden brown, about 3-5 minutes. Pour off excess oil.
Pour the reserved chicken marinade into the cast iron skillet. Place the chicken pieces, skin side up, in the pan. Cover with aluminum foil and braise in the oven until chicken is fork tender, about 40 to 55 minutes.
Remove the chicken to a roasting pan and rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, add the onion rings to the skillet and bring the pan juices to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Cook mojo sauce until slightly reduced, about 8-10 minutes. Pour the excess juices from the resting chicken back into the sauce and season with additional salt and pepper, if necessary.
Finish off the chicken under the broiler for 2-3 minutes to re-crisp the skin. Serve the chicken over white rice with lots of sauce and onions.
Related: Recipe: Cuban Black Bean Soup
(Images: Nealey Dozier)