“We go through a lot of chicken breast,” says Benny Mosqueda, owner of Seaside’s popular The Butter House.
He says this with a smile and justified pride. Mosqueda’s crew soaks chicken in buttermilk overnight and blend eight herbs and spices into the flour. But mention the possibility that one afternoon he may run out of meat for his fried chicken sandwich and his pallor changes dramatically.
“I dread the day we do,” he says in a hushed tone.
It’s the same at Brophy’s Tavern in Carmel, where they call it the crispy chicken sandwich and dress it with niceties like heirloom tomatoes and avocado aioli.
“Today I probably sold 20 of them for lunch,” observes Brophy’s bartender Xavier Plasencia. “That’s including one for me.”
Again, however, drop in the chance that they could open the walk in and find it bare and he begins to shudder.
“I hope that doesn’t happen here,” Plasencia says.
It’s probably the same thing at Tarpy’s Roadhouse, Knuckles Sports Bar and other establishments serving fried chicken sandwiches—restaurant staffers growing more and more anxious as they watch the stock of chicken breast dwindle, eyes searching nervously for emergency exits, fingers hovering over the 9 on their phones, ready to tap out a hasty 9-1-1.
OK, OK—that may be a bit dramatic. But consider the fried chicken sandwich-related carnage in Maryland, Florida, Texas and other places recently. The absence of fried chicken sandwiches—or even a little queue up for a fried chicken sandwich—caused mob scenes and left a trail of blood and destruction.
Yes, it did too happen.
The New York Daily News reports that a man in Harlem began screaming with rage merely because he had to wait on his order. In Maryland, an old-fashioned slapstick brawl broke out that ended with a customer covered in flour. In Florida even restaurant staffers lost control—and it gets worse.
An armed mob stormed a place in Houston in search of chicken. When a Brooklyn establishment ran short customers attacked, leaving a restaurant staffer injured. Just last week a man was stabbed to death in Maryland after some line cutting outside a chicken joint led to a rumble.
That's why we never use the phrase "to die for" with food.
Now for the befuddling bit: All of this fighting is over fast food fried chicken. That’s right, a piece of processed meat plopped into vats of oil by teenagers. More specifically, a sandwich at Popeyes—one that someone placed on eBay with a $7,000 price tag.
Damn we’re bizarre.
I mean, the fried chicken at The Butter House is crafted with the care of a Southern grandmother. The version at Tarpy’s is also soaked in buttermilk and dredged old school. At Brophy’s—well, you get the point. These are sandwiches worth a drive, worth savoring.
“It’s by far our most popular sandwich,” Mosqueda observes. “I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback because it’s real fried chicken.”
That sounds suspiciously civil. Any old-fashioned Pier 9 donnybrooks at The Butter House? Nope. The Sharks and Jets squaring off at Brophy’s? No again. It’s doubtful an online black market for either sandwich exists, though we really haven’t bothered to check.
Now, the Wall Street Journal claims Popeyes spent two years nailing down the recipe for their fried chicken sandwich at their test kitchen in Miami, which seems a bit odd for a chain that has been frying chicken since 1972. Of course, no one went all Medieval on each other for Popeyes until now, so they must have been doing it wrong all those years.
They even went to the extent—so the story goes—of searching out a “special” flour that would magically become all crunchy when turned into a batter and dipped in sputtering oil...Um. Yeah, sounds plausible.
But taking their word on this still begs the question of why devote two years on sandwich development when you already have chicken, buns, buttery product and everything else necessary on hand?
OK, that one’s easy: Chick-fil-A, another chain known for their chicken sandwiches. Chick-fil-A has been around since 1967. And the last time they put someone in a test kitchen to scour the world for batter that would fry or come up with “new” buttermilk? That was in 1967—and they might not have done any buttermilk science or flour-related travel.
And while the chicken sandwich war has been bad for, say, the dead and wounded, it has been great for both companies. So we’ve circled back to the Burning Question. Why all the fuss over fast food fried chicken sandwiches when there are so many better options at sit down restaurants?
Here’s a guess: Internecine conflict.
Actually...two Southern-based chains, both of them reaching into new markets, both with loyal and fervent followers, the penchant for Americans to let social media sniping spill over into the real world. Yeah, I think we’ve got something.
On the other hand, there’s the matter of religion. You see, Chick-fil-A was founded by the Cathy family—strict Southern Baptists who never allow any of their restaurants to open on Sundays or Christmas. And they’ve been involved in the usual fundamentalist controversies. CEO Dan T. Cathy has made public comments condemning gay marriage, for instance.
Meanwhile Popeyes was happy to boast of their sinful open-on-Sunday ways and have pretty much remained homophobia-free—ooh! Homophobia-free range chicken!
So the fundamentalist’s fictional “war on religion” has finally launched its second front? Blue state-red state fast food? Hell, in today’s America, such a conclusion could easily be spun into something plausible.
But it’s Friday. It’s nearing happy hour. I’m craving fried chicken for some reason. The answer to this week’s Burning Question will have to gloss over the us-versus-them mentality and the force each side gains through social media and settle on something basic. Fried chicken sandwiches are just good.
“It’s comfort food,” Mosqueda says.
And if you think we're safe thanks to violence-free sandwiches like Mosqueda's, just be warned. There's a Popeyes in Watsonville and another in Gilroy. And word is a Chick-fil-A is coming to Salinas.