Only culinary historians would call 2020 the “year of the fried chicken sandwich.” Most of the rest of us would call 2020 the “year of the Cabrona virus” or the “year the world shut down.” During that annus horribilis, some 50 chains introduced either brand new premium chicken sandwiches or upgraded former versions. The instigator of the “chicken sandwich wars” was Chick-fil-A whose slogan boasts “we didn’t invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich.” In response Popeyes Louisiana Chicken debuted its own crispy fried chicken sandwich and posted a mean tweet disparaging Chick-fil-A’s claim.
So why did comfort seeking consumers flock to chicken chains in 2020? The answer to that question is in the question itself. During the Cabrona virus, consumers turned to comfort food to feel safe and in control. Lesley Rennis of the City University of New York’s Health Education Department declared “Comfort foods not only taste good, they actually lessen the impact of stress hormones. ”Eating sweet and starchy food helps our bodies make serotonin which makes us feel calmer, and decrease the stress hormone cortisol. A number of studies show that people feel less depressed, anxious and irritable after consuming carbohydrate-rich foods. Rennis says fatty foods like bacon and cheese, actually have a numbing effect, that helps decrease the emotional response to stress.
The chicken sandwich wars brought chicken to the forefront during the pandemic and it wasn’t solely about sandwiches. Crispy fried chicken tenderloins or “fingers” also gained significantly in market share and popularity. It didn’t take long for mom-and-pop restaurants to enter the fray and, in many cases, those independent gems prepared far superior chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders. Alas, without the marketing capabilities of the corporate chains, their contributions to the chicken wars didn’t register.
Not to leave any potential lucrative opportunity untapped, celebrity chefs also threw their hats into the coop. In some cases, savvy market analysts actually preceded the Cabrona virus. Among them was Richard Blais, a finalist in the fourth season of Top Chef and winner of Top Chef All-Stars in season eight. Blais, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the real CIA) is recurring presence on several culinary competition shows. He’s no longer involved with The Crack Shack, the chicken restaurant he co-founded, but he certainly stamped his mark and personality on the restaurant.
Founded in San Diego in 2015, The Crack Shack (despite a name some may find offensive) plays thematic homage to the chicken. An anthropomorphic chicken reminiscent of the world-famous San Diego Chicken watches over the restaurant much like Foghorn Leghorn watched over his coop. With seven locations across Southern California, Nevada, Colorado and Salt Lake City, The Crack Shack has ambitious expansion plans. We visited the first Salt Lake City location during Pride Day celebrations all across the city. If you still believe Utah is a stodgy, stuffy conservative city, try visiting during Pride Day. Hipster crowds enjoying themselves made us long for bygone days when we had similar energy.
An entire wall inside the restaurant brings to mind Andy Warhol’s chicken pop art. Picnic tables and bar stools make up much of the indoor seating. A spacious dog-friendly patio gave us unobstructed views of Hipsters heading to one of the city’s Pride celebrations. When we arrived at about 10:30, very few people were dining at The Crack Shack, but an hour later the restaurant was bustling with diners. Most were ordering one of the chicken sandwiches while others enjoyed fried chicken.
So what makes Crack Shack’s chicken unique? For one thing, it’s not the “Southern-fried” chicken most of us are accustomed to. It’s Southern California fried chicken and it is different. The Crack Shack proffers only “beyond free-range,” preservative-free, fresh Jidori chicken raised on small California boutique farms. That chicken is the centerpiece of sandwiches, salad entrees and bone-in chicken dinner plates. Condiments and sauces are made from scratch while local micro-artisan bakeries and handcrafted creameries source fresh breads and go into the making of shakes.
“Always be changing” seasonal shakes mean you won’t always find your favorites or even the de rigueur standards of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. On the date of our inaugural visit, the seasonal shakes were birthday cake shake and bananas foster shake. You can probably guess correctly which shake was my Kim’s and which was mine. Hint, the birthday cake shake was far too sweet for me. The concept of bananas foster has always been intriguing to me. During our eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I must have had several dozen bananas foster–not the shake, but the actual dessert. Crack Shack’s bananas foster shake is somewhat reminiscent of the bananas foster we enjoyed so much in New Orleans. It would have been fun to see the shake lit afire, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Neither the bone-in chicken or chicken sandwich come with fries, onion rings or any other accompaniment you might expect. Just as you would with Southern-fried chicken, you’ll want biscuits with your Southern California chicken. Crack Shack offers mini biscuits, six per order, that you can slather with an interesting miso-maple butter. The biscuits are light and fluffy. They hold their integrity when you cut them in half, allowing for easily spreading the butter. The butter is equal proportions sweet and savory with notes of maple sneaking in, not knocking the door down.
My Kim wouldn’t eat a chicken sandwich if it was slathered in chocolate. She might (and that’s a big might) denude everything but the chicken, but just the thought that a chicken sandwich was once placed in front of her means she probably won’t like the remaining bird. For her, a half-bird or whole-bird is the only way to go and chicken always means bone-in–no fingers. She enjoyed Crack Shack’s half bird tossed in honey butter (other choices include toro, fire and sweet heat). Being tossed in honey butter gave the chicken a nuanced flavor, just a little sweetness. The bird was lightly breaded with the crust absorbing the honey butter most. We weren’t sure whether Southern California fried chicken would measure up to the Southern fried chicken we’ve long preferred, but it does and then some. Let’s hope The Crack Shack decides someday to expand into New Mexico.
There are eight sandwiches on the menu. If you’d like fries and a drink with a sandwich it’s four dollars more. The sandwiches have a very creative bent. Though several of the sandwiches have fiery personalities–maybe competition for the Nashville hot chicken sandwich–I wanted to understand the flavor of Southern California chicken. My choice was the Coop Deville (fried chicken breast, pickled Fresno chilies, pickles, lime mayo, napa cabbage, brioche) which had just a little bite courtesy of the Fresno chiles. The chicken breast was largely covered over by other ingredients, most so moist that the brioche collapsed and I had to finish the sandwich like a salad. It’s one of the messiest sandwiches I’ve ever worn…er, eaten, but I’d wade through another one without hesitation.
My dear friend and mentor Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, and I often debated using “like crack” as a descriptor for a dish we really enjoyed. We never resolved our debate through neither of us ever described a dish as “like crack.” So, Larry might be surprised that I would visit a restaurant called The Crack Shack. He’s probably looking down from Heaven and smiling.
The Crack Shack
912 E 900 S
Salt Lake City, Utah
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LATEST VISIT: 3 June 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Coop Deville, Half Bird, Bananas Foster Shake, Birthday Cake Shake, Mini Biscuits