Why the Chicken Cutlet Is Underrated

This is not scientifically proven, but nothing tastes as good as a chicken cutlet.

A pounded-thin, tender piece of chicken breast that’s been breaded in some savory coating and pan-fried is among the greatest gifts meat-eaters can give themselves. The cutlet goes with just about anything, sides-wise it’s a relatively easy and fast dish to make, and it holds up well when reheating or eating cold the next day. Feeling frisky? You don’t even need to use a fork and knife to eat a chicken cutlet — just pick it up with your hands and chomp the cutlet like a big meat chip. This is the dream I promise you.

There was a time long ago, in the ’90s, when it felt like the chicken cutlet was everywhere. And rightfully so. A simple dish with an easy preparation that goes down even easier was a perfect fit for the era when Full House was popular, khakis were in style, and packaged or frozen foods were all the rage. It was on dinner plates at home, next to steamed broccoli and rice. It was in restaurants with a little bit of Parmesan on top and a side of butter noodles and a tomato and iceberg salad. It showed up as schnitzel and chicken Milanese and on hot sandwiches. Something about the chicken cutlet on American dinner plates felt relevant and apropos in the ’90s: It was a basic staple to serve alongside basic foods in a deceptively basic time. As more inventive, elaborate cooking came into style, though, the humble chicken cutlet fell out of favor.

Now, as we hope to find simplicity in a time of instability and chaos, the chicken cutlet is showing up on more restaurant menus again, feeding a desire for something savory, tasty, not fussy, and to the point. In restaurants like Bernie’s in New York, the chicken cutlet is being served piccata style with lemons and capers; chicken parm drenched in tomato sauce and mozzarella has appeared on Carbone’s menu; it’s even become a novelty staple as a taco shell (yes, a taco shell) at places like the Mt. Kisco Diner in New York, enveloping fettuccine (yes, fettuccine) for a light snack. It’s also now easier than ever to cutlet at home. Space-age appliances like the air fryer mean chicken cutlets no longer smoke up your kitchen, and restaurant-quality chicken cutlets are on deck any weeknight you’d like.

Before you ask, yes, a chicken cutlet is fried chicken, just by another slightly French name. (“Cutlet” comes from the French word “côtelette,” or little rib.) It may not be the most exciting of fried chicken preparations — how could a flat piece of meat be as good as the dynamic adventure of wings, thighs, legs, and breasts? But that’s the thing about the cutlet — that flat slab is a crispy-fried canvas upon which you can project all your heart’s desires.

What kind of cuisine do you prefer? The chicken cutlet can and will suit your fancy. Perhaps you prefer your chicken cutlet Italian-style, drowning in tomato sauce and covered in melted cheese: There you have a chicken Parmesan. Is it more your style to have a cutlet Japanese-style, slathered with tonkatsu sauce alongside crunchy cabbage and rice? Then you’re going to want to order a panko-encrusted chicken katsu, sliced into pleasing thick strips. Vegetarian? The excellent Meati crispy cutlet is made with 95 percent mycelium mushroom fungus and mimics the salted and savory cutlet on a chicken sandwich, over a salad, or as a taco shell for yet more vegetarian chicken cutlets. Are you intrigued by a more South American style, served with french fries, tomato salad, and limes? The chicken Milanesa of Argentina is so popular that it has its own national holiday. What a country. A national holiday for a cutlet. Can you imagine?

We have, of late, been revisited by ghost trends of the not-so-distant past, most of which eventually and inevitably peter out when the novelty of pretending like you’re on an episode of Sex and the City wears off. But unlike the espresso martini and Vienettas — two other resurging vestiges from the ’80s and ’90s — the throwback-y chicken cutlet never truly went out of style. It’s always been there, hiding on the menus of all cuisines for eons — in schnitzel, in sandwiches, with sauces and without, with sides, breaded, pan-fried and deep-fried. Of the numerous preparations one can use to make fried chicken, the chicken cutlet has one supreme quality above them all: Its ability to speak a universal language. It exists in no time and at all times, in all places and no places; it resists limitations, boxes, and diminishment. The chicken cutlet, in all its beauty and simplicity, is forever. And we’re so glad that it’s back.

Saskia van de Geest is an illustrator based in London, UK. She loves drawing good food and interesting faces.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein