Here Comes A New Challenger

Sometime when I wasn’t paying attention - actually, over the course of several years pockmarked by relentless delays and general construction-based shenanigans - Atlanta’s bricky, unused Sears, Roebuck & Co. building was transmogrified into Ponce City Market. This seems like the right time to warn you that the subject matter of this post is going to be of more localized interest than my Chick-fil-A musings of yesteryear, but rest assured: poultry will get roped into this thing in a few paragraphs. Not literally - I don’t lasso chickens. But I do eat them on buns with a variety of zesty sauces, and I’ll bet you do too. Which is worse? That’s not for me to say, but maybe give yourself a long, hard look in the mirror before you judge me for chicken-wrangling, friendo.

I’m off track already. My blogging finger must be rusty. I was about to start pontificating on the awesomeness of Ponce City Market, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Because PCM is huge, bro. The ground floor abuts Ponce De Leon Avenue, a heavily trafficked and frankly pretty shitty corridor draped across Atlanta’s midsection, and is entirely given over to restaurants and retail shops, most of which have proven themselves to be “tasty,” “expensive,” or - at the very least - “interesting.” Some places, like, say, Goorin Bros. Hat Shop, manage to also be “bewildering,” in the sense that it’s hard to convince my brain that I live in a world where a store that exclusively peddles massive floppy hats to yuppy hipsters (“yupsters”?) can afford such in-demand space. But there it is, peddling away, ushering happy twenty-and-thirty-somethings out into the world with flaccid, cloth garbage bags draped across their heads. For the most part, the other shops are more overtly sensical - you’ve got your boutique clothing stores, your higher-end sit-down restaurants, a coffee bar, a gelateria, and a couple of top tier home decor/furnishing spots in case you’re in the market for an elephant-tusk-encrusted copper frying pan. I know I am - elephant always tastes better when it’s been fried in its own tusks. Cooking 101.

The remaining few spaces in PCM (aside from, of course, the OLIVE OIL STORE and the BITTERS STORE, which, for obvious reasons, I won’t be addressing) are occupied by faster food. Not “fast food,” really, just food that doesn’t require sitting at a table and ordering from a panicked waiter or waitress (most of this stuff just opened, so some restaurant staff is still looking for its sea legs). In fact, these restaurants don’t have uniquely available seating and instead expect you to flying-elbow your way into whatever general seating you can acquire out in the scrum between shops. Among those faster food options is Hop’s Chicken, a suspiciously Chick-fil-A-esque project cobbled together by Linton Hopkins, the culinary drug lord pulling the strings behind Atlanta success stories Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene.

So what’s Hop’s Chicken’s game, exactly? Their flagship item is a fried chicken sandwich on a buttered bun with two pickly pickle discs hiding inside. That seems eerily familiar. And ::gasp:: they have chicken biscuits too? The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. When Truett Cathy’s vengeance comes - and by god, it will come - it will be righteous, bloody, and unsparing. I’ll tell you what, though: Hop’s’ food is mighty scrumptious. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Hops is doing differently than Chick-fil-A, but I suspect it might have a little something to do with what’s known in the massage industry as a “spice rub.” As in, the spices being rubbed into these chicken parts prior to “deep frying” (another massage industry term) are slightly tweaked from Chick-fil-A’s, resulting in a tangier, pepperier final product. The final product is also noticeably greasier than its equivalent at Chick-fil-A, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, especially if you zombie-shamble down the beltline to Hop’s  the morning after a night of old-fashioned beer-funneling.

In terms of bread options, Hop’s has at least one clear advantage over Chick-fil-A, in that it’s shamelessly smuggling Holeman & Finch buns across the fast food border from the burger spot twenty yards away to be repurposed for chicken sandwiches, and Holeman & Finch buns are #drrrty. They’re big, they’re fluffy, they convey subtle notes of quasi-sweetness, and they make a hell of a fine pairing with a chicken breast.

And here’s some big news: at Hop’s, I leave the pickles alone. They can stay. If I’m being honest with myself, these pickles are probably being granted amnesty at least in part because Hop’s insists on describing them as “bread and butter pickles,” and for some reason, that means I’m going to eat them. I don’t really even know what “bread and butter” means when you apply it to a pickle (I’ve been to a grocery store, and bread and butter are two other, separate food items), but I see pickles described that way everywhere, and I always eat them, and I never regret it.  Hop’s’ pickles are thick and crisp, and blasting into one while munching brainlessly on a chicken sandwich fills my heart with joy. Whether it’s fair to say or not, Chick-fil-A’s pickles seem a little sadder and limper by comparison.

Next up: chicken biscuits. Hop’s has chicken biscuits. And guess what? Hop’s has chicken biscuits on Sundays. That’s huge. I know that other places have chicken biscuits on Sundays too, but I don’t care about those places. According to early American folklore, Hop’s makes its biscuits from scratch every morning, and they’re super-dense and crumbly. They’re very different from Chick-fil-A’s patented butter sponges - not better, mind you, just different - and require some sort of liquid to successfully swallow. If that liquid is coffee from Spiller Park Coffee ten feet away, great. If that liquid is pancake batter, you’re disgusting, and you’re probably going to suffocate. The chicken in my chicken biscuit, which I ordered Nashville hot style, was an alarming nuclear orange in color and packed a genuine punch, something I appreciate in light of Chick-fil-A’s apparent fear of heat-related lawsuits.

Other things you should know about Hop’s Chicken, in no particular order. It has something called “Frim Fram Sauce,” which I haven’t tried but am certain is awesome. It has a small selection of sides, and the Mac & Cheese is as cheesy as...I don’t know...Ghost starring Patrick Swayze? Is that cheesy? Also, it serves beer. Not a lot of beer - four options, last time I visited - but beer nonetheless, and one of those beers is a “Chicken Beer.” It tastes like PBR. For all I know, it is PBR.

To pull it all together, Hop’s Chicken is very, very solid. Despite what you may have taken away from what I’ve said above, it’s not about to supplant Chick-fil-A in my mind (or in reality, or in the Matrix), but it’s mighty tasty in its own right and has its own thing going on, and it’s open on Sundays, so chances are I’m going to keep lurking in its vicinity. But not in Goorin Bros. Hat Shop. I’m good, Goorin Bros.

Disclaimer: I’m not cranking my blog back up full time or anything, so quit making me your homepage. This was just a one-off side project to ease the tension.

 

 

Fin

As you may know (you probably don’t know, unless you compulsively check my blog, in which case you need a medication refill, and thanks), I haven’t filed any new Chick-fil-A-based entries in a few weeks. That’s not cool, and it’s not respectful of you, my OCD-soaked, anxiety-ridden reader, or the internet at large. The internet needs food, and it’s my job to feed it. If I don’t feed it, it gets angry, and when it gets angry...that’s when the robots attack.

What happened is actually pretty simple: I reached the end of my project. And by “project,” I mean “the Chick-fil-Menu.” It felt like I imagine it did when Shel Silverstein found the end of the sidewalk; he got there, and that was that. Sure, there are a few things left to sample, and I’m sure I’ll give them a taste at some point, but they’re mostly variations on items I’ve already covered: different milkshake flavors, wacky salad bowls, exotic sauce packets, that sort of thing. I could go through them one by one, but that would start getting repetitive quickly, and I think I’ve made my point by now. What’s my point? That Chick-fil-A serves up a good lunch, an even better breakfast, and there are a few items (the Chicken Biscuit, the Spicy Chicken Sandwich) that are so transcendent that they’re setting the bar for other fast food restaurants to try and clear like chicken-fried Olympic hurdlers. Those items, they’re transcendentalists.

So, this is awkward. What now? We’re all sitting here in my little blog space, twiddling our thumbs expectantly while we wait for someone to say something interesting, and everyone’s avoiding eye contact and checking their watches. It’s like I invited a bunch of people to a dinner party and then tried to get everyone to help me reenact that Neverland feast scene from Hook, but we’re all skeptical Robin Williamses and no one’s really into it, so the real food never materializes and we all halfheartedly chew an imaginary chicken leg and then call Ubers. It’s exactly like that.

I’m going to put Run For It Marty on hiatus until inspiration strikes and I kick off my next long-term project. There’s a chance I’ll toss off a few Chick-fil-A updates as I work on closing out the menu, but it won’t be a priority. In the past month or so, I’ve churned out a few longer-form articles on such nerdy topics as video games and...video games, so if you’re interested in that kind of thing (nerd), feel free to click on those links and dive in. Also, the musical facet of my relentless assault on the internet is about to kick off, so keep an eye (and an ear?) out. I promise that my music has nothing to do with Chick-fil-A. Unless you want it to. Just let me know.

And with that, I hereby close the book on the Chick-fil-A chapter of my writing life, the tasty first half of my 2015. It’s been a wild ride, but not that wild, because all I really did was write about my lunch. Lunch was good.

My Milkshake

It brings all the boys to the yard. And they’re like, “It’s better than yours.” But that’s neither here nor there.

Apparently, it’s summertime. It seems like just yesterday I was ruminating about Mr. Freeze blasting Atlanta with his ice rifle and frosty wit - both capable of significantly slowing down brainwaves - and wondering if I’d ever be able to dig my way out of my office-igloo. I guess I didn’t need to worry, because now this happens every time I walk outside. My face is starting to hurt. As a much younger Lewis, summer in Atlanta meant imprisoning lightning bugs in jars so as to better enjoy their fluorescent butts; crying inconsolably when they died because I forgot to poke holes in their sad, sad cells; playing twilight games of Calvinball with my stuffed tiger; hanging around with a rough crowd near the dumpsters behind the local movie theater; and protecting the neighborhood from the gang of coyotes that moved in and starting assassinating our pets like they were controversial political figures. Nothing short of idyllic.

Now it’s just hot. I’m not sure what happened to spring - was it abolished? Does it still exist in other cities? Maybe Carmen Sandiego stole it - that seems like something she’d do. I don’t have the Chief’s number anymore (we had quick fling and then a pretty bad falling out), so if that’s the case, my sleuthing options are limited. The only other entity I can think of to throw blame at is El Nino, but I don’t have any idea how to eradicate a recurring tropical storm. I don’t think even the Chief could help with that. Maybe an X-Man.

What it boils (AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHAHAHA!! SUCK IT, MR. FREEZE!!) down to is this: it’s hot, it’s going to remain hot, global warming is a thing, glaciers are melting, polar bears are getting sweaty and wondering why their Cokes are all flat, and I’m going to keep hydrated the best way I know how: dairy products and cookies. Chick-fil-A, as you hopefully already know, makes a hell of a milkshake. In a fast food world fully saturated with milkshake options, Chick-fil-A’s is the walk-off winner, but I’m not sure I can adequately articulate why that is. There are assuredly other good ones out there: Steak ‘n Shake’s Cookies and Cream shake with its incongruous monster cookie was my go-to for most of my early years, but with age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes the realization that I don’t want to sit in a drive-through for forty-five minutes while my shake gets shook, nor do I have any real need for a monster cookie to be included in my milkshake package. I’ve already got a milkshake - what the hell do I do with this frying-pan-sized chocolate wafer? Chuck it at the drive-through attendant like Kung Lao? Dairy Queen has a strong argument that its Blizzard wins Best Dessert, full stop, but a Blizzard isn’t exactly a milkshake; it’s more like what happens when an industrial fan blows a truckload of candy into a vat of really sweet glue. And I’m not here to compare apples and oranges. That’s cross-contamination, even if they’re both (moderately) circular fruits.

The Chick-fil-A milkshake wins because I can’t think of any logical way to improve it. Granted, 99% of my Chick-fil-A milkshake orders are for the Cookies and Cream variety, but my dabblings in other flavours (that’s the British spelling, suck it again Mr. Freeze, I don’t know why) have only further proved the hypothesis. The Cookies and Cream milkshake, like a high school valedictorian, has everything going for it. Its future’s so bright, it’s gotta wear shades. The ice cream component is at peak creaminess, the crumbly cookies are Oreos, needing no further elaboration, and the whipped cream and cherry on top are the...cherry on top. It’s hard to use ice cream sundae metaphors when what’s being described is basically an ice cream sundae. Now, I’m not one to actually eat a milkshake cherry, but I know you weirdos are out there, and I do like the cherry syrup flavor it imparts to the general milkshake domain. The oversized straw makes a good butter-churn-rod for mixing in the whipped cream, although, as with all cookies and cream milkshakes, cookie boulders do tend to get lodged at the bottom of the straw, thereby preventing further milkshake enjoyment until such time as they can be removed. One of the many occupational hazards of milkshake-drinking. But don’t fret, bro, you’ve got this.

Chick-fil-A Milkshakes come in two sizes: small and hippopotamus. If you order a small, you’re presented with what amounts to any normal human’s approximation of a full-sized milkshake. If you go full-hippo, you’re ceremonially showered in exactly one hundred pounds of pure, uncut ice cream while the cashier tries to peg you in the face with whole Oreos. It’s a mess, but it used to be my default order in high school, back when my primary concern was bulking up for swimsuit season. Four thousand calories eaten over the course of two and a half minutes give you a good head start on that kind of thing. These days, I only order the big guy when I know I have a considerable window of uninterrupted time available to fill with activities like “passing out in the corner” or “chomping Pepto Bismol.” The sugar crash shouldn’t be underestimated, either - one daddy-sized milkshake will send your spirits soaring above the stratosphere and rainbows blooming out of your fingertips, but as soon as you get too close to the sun, your wings will burn off and that same milkshake will drag you shuddering straight to hell. And eventually, you’ll even back out, and you’ll get another milkshake. That’s what summer is all about.

Milkshake: 9.5/10

Drive-Through Rage Factor: Road work chaos = volcanic rage.

HBITSCTAS: N/a. It's a big foam cup.

Weather: Face-melt.


Mini-Bites of Breakfast

After sleepy-worm-dancing my way out of my tangled sheets and onto the floor on Wednesday morning, I padded into my kitchen to discover that my cupboard was as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s that one time that she wanted to give her dog a bone but then didn’t end up having any bones to give him. Full disclosure: I just had to look up that nursery rhyme to double-check the plot because I thought it might have involved curds and whey. But that’s “Little Miss Muffet,” and, frankly, her meal sounds disgusting. “Old Mother Hubbard,” it turns out, is way longer than the one stanza that everybody knows, and it’s really damn weird: the dog who doesn’t get a bone DIES (of starvation?) after OMH runs off to buy him a loaf of bread, but then he miraculously comes back to life and engages in a slew of distinctly un-dog-like activities while OMH keeps leaving to buy him shit. If you’re curious, you can check it out here; if you’re not, just know that the dog reads the paper, smokes a pipe, feeds a cat, rides a goat, and plays a flute; he eventually kicks it for real, and OMH erects a monument in his honor. The 1800s were awesome.

Anyway, I didn’t have any food or bones or anything in my cupboard, so I was faced with either certain starvation (the nursery rhyme taught me that much) or food-hunting en route to the office. Giving into my primal instincts, I hitched up my loincloth, grabbed a spear from the spear rack, and set off on the hunt. I killed about four hundred pounds worth of meat (mostly bear) but couldn’t haul more than one hundred pounds back to my wagon, so I ended up abandoning the whole effort and going to Chick-fil-A. Seemed like an easier plan, and one that wouldn’t require me to pay to have all that bear meat professionally cleaned out of my leather seats. Having tackled Breakfast Burritos already, I decided it was high time I got acquainted with a newer addition to the Chick-fil-A menu, and one much beloved by the coveted millennial demographic (I don’t know, probably): the Chick-n-Mini. I don’t like the way that “n” is taking over the hyphen-ed spot usually occupied by the “fil,” so I’m going to refer to this particular breakfast item as a “Mini” from here on out.

So, the MINI. What is it? Where did it come from? Who is buying these? What are they doing with them? Are they used as currency in some countries? How long will one float if you tie it to a balloon? Did the dog in “Old Mother Hubbard” ever try one? I’ll attempt to answer at least a few of these pertinent questions, but I’ve learned to accept that some mysteries are bound to remain mysterious. When asked to describe the Minis, a source close to your intrepid writer has gone on record as saying, “This shit is bananas.” That source was Gwen Stefani, and I may have pulled her quote from an unrelated song from 2004, and I may not have her permission to use it in this context, but I think she’d agree with me if I could find a way to ask her. Mailer-Daemon keeps returning the emails I send to gwen@altavista.gov.

You can order the Mini in a set of three or a set of four, which strikes me as an odd distinction - is four really so much more than three that it needs to be a separate menu item? I can’t imagine a situation where I could eat three of these but not manage to force down four. A two-or-four option - or even a three-or-six option! - would make more sense to me, but hell, it’s not my menu; I’m just one more spear-wielding proto-Neanderthal looking for some breakfast. Feeling optimistic, I decided to go with the four-pack, and I think it was the right move. The Mini is another Chick-fil-A item that deserves some plaudits for its stupefying simplicity: this is, quite literally, a chicken nugget ensconced in a Sister Schubert’s roll. If you like both of those things - and I do - then you’ll probably like Minis. If you’re for some reason unfamiliar with Sister Schubert’s rolls, here’s what’s going on: Sister Schubert was this super-hot nun from the early fifteenth century who lived in a monastery somewhere in south Florida that shared a parking lot with a bakery, and she used to sneak over after bedtime to cook epically poofy rolls for her dirty nun friends. One untrustworthy nun started selling Schubert’s rolls as a side business to nunning, word of mouth spread the good news around the country, and BOOM - Sister Schubert is an overnight celebrity, she moves to Hollywood, she gets caught up in a frenzied wave of fame and drugs and sex and alchemy, her tour bus flips over one night between Austin and New Orleans, and that’s that.

I made sure to write all of that before clicking on “Our Story” on the official Sister Schubert’s website, and I’m glad I did - the real story is pretty lame. And actually, the rolls Chick-fil-A is using are almost definitely not Sister Schubert’s brand, but they’re very similar. Small, yeasty, and buttery, they’re perfect pig-in-a-blanket material if you’re into sausage rolls, and perfect chicken-in-a-blanket material if you’re Chick-fil-A. I defaulted to oozing a little honey on mine, just because that’s what I do with Chicken Biscuits and I tend to stick with what’s comfortable. I thoroughly enjoyed my four Minis, but let’s be honest: there was never any real likelihood of them standing up to the Chicken Biscuit. And they don’t. The strongest emotion they instilled in me was “I feel like I’m eating appetizers at a dinner party.” But they’re way better than the Breakfast Burrito, and really, the Mini is just one more miniaturized version of the classic Chick-fil-A sandwich, so there’s nothing particularly negative to say. Four rolls plus four nuggets equates to a substantial-enough meal, especially if you pair them with some Hash Browns, and it’s all perfectly tasty.

Wait, wait...I haven’t said anything about Chick-fil-A’s Hash Browns yet? Ay Dios mio! I don’t speak Spanish, so I don’t know what I just said. I hope it wasn’t offensive. My off-the-cuff ode to Chick-fil-A Hash Browns:


Oh flying discus, battered and fried;

Full of potatoes and warm inside;

You come in a box that has lots of vents;

You’re salty and crunchy, you’re ninety-nine cents.


Boom. Poetry.


Chick-n-Minis: 7.5/10

Hash Browns: 8/10

Date: 6/3/15, 8:40 AM

Drive-through: Morning breakfast rush. Girl with headset taking orders outside pre-drive-through. High pressure situation.