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.