This may sound like an April Fools’ Day joke, but think again: In its “Culture” issue in March, the we’re-so-hip Bon Appetit magazine trumpeted the fried chicken sandwich as its “sandwich of the year.” The opening text said, “Chefs across the country are racing to see who will rule the crunchy, juicy, golden age of the FCS.”
The food magazine’s eight-stop FCS timeline begins in the 1960s with the late Truett Cathy, founder of the Chick-fil-A chain, and moves on with a mention of James Beard Award-winning chef David Chang, whose New York-centric restaurant empire Momofuku includes Fuku, dedicated to the FCS.
The timeline also names Alison Barakat’s Bakesale Betty in the Temescal district of Oakland, an older residential neighborhood. Among the many who love its FCS is the Huffington Post, where it made the “best sandwiches in the U.S.” list. Also, it was featured on ABC’s “The Chew,” which filmed a segment at the store.
Corporate guys Nate Brown and Steve Tatum rendezvoused with me there Saturday, fruitlessly looking for a “Bakesale Betty” sign, which doesn’t exist. Not that it’s needed, judging by the long line of customers waiting on the sidewalk to get in and walk out with 500 to 800 FCSs a day. Its menu is hand-printed on four large rectangles of paper taped to an outside wall – “Buttermilk fried chicken and coleslaw sandwich, $8.25 plus tax.” Baked goods included cookies ($1.50), scones ($2.75) and Betty’s world-renowned (OK, it’s not, but it should be) strawberry shortcake ($5.50; to be replaced by apple pie in the fall).
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The only “tables” – narrow metal ironing boards, with wooden stools around them – are beneath shady trees along the wide sidewalk fronting busy Telegraph Avenue.
While Steve “reserved” our ironing board, Nate and I joined the fast-moving queue. We quickly found ourselves in front of the jammed but super-efficient order counter, beneath a wall arrangement of rolling pins. A cashier handled our transaction one minute, and the next was handing over stuffed bags. “They crank it out here,” Nate observed. Yes, but in a mellow, professional way.
Back at our ironing board, we dug in to deep-fried greatness. The crunchy, delicious chicken breast finds a life partner in the mound of from-scratch jalapeño-spiked coleslaw, together at last on a perfect bun from nearby Acme bakery. We bought another bagful to bring back to Sacramento. Most of them made it here.
As for dessert, the cookies and scones were excellent, but could not keep up with the strawberry shortcake.
A woman in a bright-blue wig, schmoozing the customers at a neighboring ironing board, turned out to be Alison Barakat herself in her trademark headgear. She led me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the bustling kitchen area, where among the racks of buns and fried chicken breasts were 20 special-ordered apple pies, looking lusty.
The short version of her story: After cooking at restaurants in Australia (she grew up in Sydney) Barakat immigrated to the United States in 2000 and got a cooking job at Chez Panisse Cafe. She opened Bakesale Betty as a farmers market bakery stand in 2002, leaving Alice Waters’ restaurant in 2003.
Barakat and husband Michael Camp worked the farmers market circuit until 2005 and then opened the Telegraph Avenue store, specializing in the FCS. They closed a second Oakland-based Bakesale Betty because “we wanted to spend more time with our family,” she said.
The recipes for the slaw and the chicken are deceptively simple: The slaw calls for red onion, jalapeño, parsley and green cabbage, mixed with a vinaigrette of Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil and salt. The buttermilk-soaked chicken breasts are seasoned with cayenne pepper, black pepper and salt.
Where does the magic come from? “Part of it is the ingredients we use – Mary’s free-range, organic chicken, Acme bread, Bariani olive oil,” Barakat said. “Plus the customer service and atmosphere. It’s a scene that people want to be part of, and they have a great time.”
Why the signature blue wig? “It was just a fun idea when I sold baked goods at farmers markets, a laugh that accidentally turned into an awesome marketing tool.”
What’s next? “Keep doing what we do, and doing it well.” she said. “When the kids get older, we’ll be more open to something different. But the formula works for right now.”
The Broaster plays ball
Meanwhile, Joe Marty’s has brought back its Broaster chicken by popular demand of the old-time customers who hung out at the original restaurant.
Just what is Broaster chicken, anyway? It’s chicken that has been soaked in marinade and dipped into batter – in this case, from a recipe revived by former Joe Marty’s cook Billy Fuller. To quote Broaster’s website (www.broaster.com), “The chicken is placed inside the Broaster pressure fryer, designed to cook each individual piece ‘under pressure’ in the chicken’s own natural juices, limiting the absorption of cooking oil while searing the chicken with a crispy-crunchy coating.”
We dropped by last week and sampled three-piece plates of the “Original Chicken” with better-than-average wedge potatoes and flavorless coleslaw ($11, served after 2 p.m.). The juicy, steaming-hot chicken was jacketed in a crisp, non-oily crust in need of more seasoning. As a novelty dish made of memories, give it a home run. As a stand-alone meal, it’s a double or a triple.
1500 Broadway, Sacramento; 916-382-9022, www.gojoemartys.com.
Where: 5098 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Ambiance: ☆☆☆☆ for purists, ☆☆ for tourists.
How much: $-$$
Information: 510-985-1213; www.bakesalebetty.com