If the pandemic can be credited for anything good, I’d have to point to fried chicken sandwiches.
Quick-service eateries have had fried chicken sandwiches on their menus for several years, but 2020 brought a veritable flock of new entrants to compete against such nationals as Popeyes and Chick-fil-A. (Why? Chicken sandwiches travel well, always a plus in a takeout/delivery world, and chicken prices are relatively stable, opposed to the beef used in burgers.)
Locally, the newcomers specializing in fried chicken sandwiches are a diverse bunch, adding to an already crowded field including Love & Honey in Northern Liberties; the gluten-free Lovebird in Bryn Mawr, Doylestown, and Newtown; Redcrest in South Philly; and Foghorn in East Falls. Heck, even Wawa got into it.
Among the 2020 openings: The Lucky Well’s Chad Rosenthal combated his bar-restaurant doldrums by adding a takeout/delivery brand called Motel Fried Chicken. Entrepreneur Brittany Tolliferreo opened a second location of Chick-A-Boom. The guys behind Snap Custom Pizza, with former Rouge chef Dean Dupuis, created Big Dean’s Hot Chicken using a cool business model. Chef Yehuda Sichel opened Huda, a sandwich shop, in Center City. Around the corner, Taiwanese snack shop Baology added a chicken sandwich on a sweet potato bun. Greg Herman opened a barbecue/comfort fooder in downtown Ardmore called Sophie’s BBQ with not one but two sandwiches. The crew at Glu Hospitality, shifting their focus from operating bars (Vesper, Germantown Garden) to restaurants (SET NoLibs, Añejo), run Hunnies Crispy Chicken out of two delivery-only (”ghost”) kitchens. Reuben “Big Rube” Harley also has two ghost kitchens for Chef Big Rube’s Kitchen to cover much of the city. And David Murray added Cluckwerks, a chicken takeout, to supplement sales at his Denim BYOB in Haddonfield.
Then there are the nationals. Fuku — David Chang’s syndicated chicken brand, which has been offered locally at Lincoln Financial Field — opened a ghost kitchen in Northern Liberties. Sticky’s Finger Joint out of New York delivers out of West Philadelphia. Shake Shack recently unveiled a Korean fried chicken sandwich for a limited time. McDonald’s will segue from its tired McChicken sandwich into three new crispy chicken sandwiches on Feb. 24. And Philly is expected to get a location of the Filipino quick-service “chickenjoy” giant Jollibee in late 2021 at the old Cottman-Bustleton Center in Northeast Philadelphia.
All offer sandwiches at various heat levels, though Huda’s and Fuku’s have a definite kick. So does the kung pao chicken sandwich from the brand-new Libertee Grounds mini-golf/beer restaurant in North Philadelphia, which is worth a mention even though it is not a chicken restaurant per se.
Tip: Ask for sauce on the side. You want to keep the crispiness.
Here are some of the fried chicken sandwich newcomers to the Philadelphia area, in no particular order.
Brittany Tolliferreo, who grew up in the Parkside section of West Philadelphia, worked in a bank and loved fried chicken. “But I noticed there were not too many options [around here] for Chick-fil-A,” she said, wryly. “I said, ‘We’re going to our own ‘Chick-fil-A’ to provide job opportunities and food of quality.” The first Chick-A-Boom location opened in a Folcroft strip center in late 2019. Reaction was huge. In April 2020, she and partners opened a second location, with a drive-thru, at 46th and Lancaster. She has national aspirations.
Chick-A-Boom’s chicken sandwiches, cooked to order and well-packaged for travel, are lavishly topped with provolone cheese (which they torch), pickle, coleslaw, scallions, and a Thousand Island-like “Boom” sauce. There’s a wide variety of sauces, including mango habañero, honey barbecue, and sweet Thai chili. Many napkins are required.
Barbecue is typically a low-profit business. Bar business, though, can make up for it. But when your bar is closed, what do you do? Chad Rosenthal, who has three locations of The Lucky Well, pivoted to chicken sandwiches branded as Motel Fried Chicken.
The sandwiches and fries are available for takeout at his city location (990 Spring Garden St.) and around the corner at Love City Brewing’s tented outdoor seating, as well as his Montgomery County location (111 E. Butler Ave.). He also opened a Motel shop this week in San Antonio, Texas.
This buttermilk-brined breast is among the juiciest around, with a coating that is not overly bready and a smooth ranch sauce.
Motel Fried Chicken at The Lucky Well Address: 990 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia, and 111 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, Website: philly.theluckywell.com (Philly) and theluckywell.com (Ambler), Instagram: @theluckywell, Takeout only: 4:30-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4:30-10 p.m. Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday, and noon-8 p.m. Sunday.
Snap Custom Pizza, a fast-casual mini-chain of personalized pizzerias run by Peter Howey, Aaron Nocks, and Rob Wasserman, has branched into chicken with Big Dean’s Hot Chicken. The first location, which opened recently for takeout, is inside the ShopRite in Roxborough, which allows supermarket shoppers and drivers from DoorDash and, soon, Caviar.
And there most certainly is a Dean. He’s Dean Dupuis, who was chef at Rouge before the pandemic, and Big Dean’s food has Southern roots; his pantry is stocked with Crystal hot sauce, Zatarain’s Creole mustard, and Duke’s mayo. White Lily flour gives the chicken’s breading a lightness. There’s an original sandwich that has just enough seasoning, while the Nashville hot chicken, with two different peppers, is the signature. (Don’t skip the fries, whose umami spice includes nutritional yeast and vinegar powder.)
Reuben Harley, the former front man for sportswear giant Mitchell & Ness in its throwback-jersey heyday and a longtime caterer, is now in the food business full-time with Chef Big Rube’s Kitchen. He took on Aaron Anderson, an entrepreneur (who also has the local franchise for the Original Hot Dog Factory), as his investor in two ghost kitchens.
He has several chicken sandwiches on his menu, available for takeout and delivery from two kitchens in the city, including what he calls a Cashville hot sammich with garlic butter, sharp cheddar, lettuce, tomato, hot spice, and two different sauces — multiple napkins are essential.
Chef Big Rube’s Kitchen, Address: 3300 Fairmount Ave. and 1308 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia, Website: chefbigrubeskitchen.com Instagram: @chefbigrubeskitchen Delivery: DoorDash, Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Postmates Delivery hours: 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday.
Expect all kinds of surprises from Abe Fisher alum Yehuda Sichel’s upmarket corner sandwich shop near 18th and Market, including grilled swordfish, maitake mushroom, and short rib grilled cheese on house-baked milk buns. His spicy chicken is thigh meat atop of pickled chilies, Southwest dressing, lettuce, and tomato.
Denim BYOB owner David Murray added a fried chicken takeout/delivery menu to his Haddonfield BYOB, opting for Amoroso potato rolls to hold the pickle-brined juicy thighs breaded with all-purpose flour and rice flour.
The original sandwich gets “cluck sauce,” which is onion puree, hickory barbecue sauce, Dusseldorf mustard, mayo, pickle juice, and honey. The Haddonfield Hot variety is bathed in what Murray calls “cayenne butterscotch,” a rich, spicy mixture of salted butter, rosemary, brown sugar, and heavy cream.
Judy Ni and Andy Tessier use the whole chicken at Baology, their Taiwanese street-food eatery near Logan Square. In summer 2020, they began experimenting with a fried chicken-thigh sandwich to supplement their menu of dumplings, gwa baos, and ruen bings.
Reminiscent of the slow-braised chicken in their gwa bao, the chicken in the sandwich is topped with mozzarella from Antonio Mozzarella Factory in Newark, N.J., togarashi aioli, cabbage, and pickled shallots. The Merzbacher sweet-potato burger bun pairs well with the sweet potato chips served on the side.
The smokers are running on high at Greg Herman’s summertime start-up in Ardmore, which mixes a barbecue and comfort-food menu. Herman offers two herb-brined chicken-thigh sandwiches on his menu: the ‘Bama (with Alabama white sauce, grilled onion, white cheddar, and housemade pickles, and a hot chicken with jalapeño aioli, arugula, Gruyère, and jalapeño relish on a brioche.
Chef Hee “Chino” Chang has done seemingly everything in the food world — burgers at Butcher Burger, Korean at the late Bop, bar food at Eagles alum Brent Celek’s erstwhile Prime Stache, and high-end cooking at Germantown Garden. He also makes a mean chicken sandwich, and the owners of Glu Hospitality are running them out of kitchens at Vesper in Center City and Germantown Garden in Northern Liberties for delivery.
His brunch-crusted crispy chicken sandwich is thickly breaded, with a decent tang of seasoning that is cooled by red cabbage slaw. The chicken and waffle sandwich gets into the sweet-and-savory side with maple syrup; ask for that on the side.
New York-based chef David Chang (Momofuku Noodle Bar) has tinkered with his Fuku chicken sandwich, moving from thighs to breast meat that is brined in habañero puree for 24 hours, served with Fuku mayo and pickles on a Martin’s potato roll.
Interesting change; though this is a tasty, crunchy sandwich available in different varieties, I actually preferred the previous thigh version sold for the last three seasons at the Linc.
The sweet jalapeño-seasoned fries are a great add-on.
Curious location. Through a partnership with REEF Neighborhood Kitchens, the sandwiches are made in a large, white trailer parked in a lot across from Philadelphia fire headquarters in Northern Liberties.
Sticky’s Finger Joint, which debuted in 2012 in New York, just arrived in Philly, in December, taking space at the ghost kitchen at 3300 Fairmount Ave. to serve a swath of the city including Brewerytown, Fairmount, Logan Square, Mantua, Spruce Hill, and University City.
This isn’t a slab of chicken — it’s chicken fingers, two of them, on a Martin’s potato roll. Lots of crunch here because of all the surface area; there are grilled or veggie versions available. The original version is plenty tasty, and the spicy version has more than enough heat from peppers and cumin. The vinegar-based purple slaw, found on the original sandwich, is available as a side.