In Search of Southern Cooking in
America at Large:
On Waiting in Line for Chicken Sandwiches
When I was a senior in high school, a Chick-fil-A opened up in the dilapidated old Hardee’s building across the street from the gym. For anyone who hasn’t witnessed a Chick-fil-A grand opening, the fanfare may come as a bit of a shock—there are giveaways, midnight ice cream sundae parties, and infinite chicken nuggets on the evening preceding opening day. The highlight of the festivities, however, is the “First 100” contest, also known as “Crazy People Camping in a Parking Lot for 52 Chicken Sandwich Coupons” contest. I must admit there was a brief period of time when my friends and I contemplated joining the fanatics and staying awake all night simply so we could eat free Chick-fil-A once a week. Instead, we decided that the free midnight sundaes were enough of a celebratory treat.
Now that I live on the west coast, I tend to obfuscate my obsession with the controversial chain. I’d always known of the Chick-fil-A founding Cathy family’s conservative Christian beliefs. But the fact that the chain was closed on Sundays so employees could go to church never struck me as a sign of any maliciousness on the part of the company. My opinion changed a bit after that midnight sundae party, though: Dan Cathy (son of the founder, Truett, and now the president of the company) spoke at the event for what seemed like hours on leadership, values, and (shockingly) “evidence” to disprove evolution. It seemed like an odd topic for a restaurant opening party, and even more odd [V1] in the liberal part of the city in which I grew up.
Since the past summer, Chick-fil-A’s Christian identity has been thrust into the news and the minds of fried chicken lovers everywhere. The company’s admission of support for anti-gay organizations added fuel to an already heated election cycle, with support for and protests against the company falling perfectly along party lines. The protests still continue here in California; just last week a Chick-fil-A opened in nearby Walnut Creek to equal-sized crowds of contest hopefuls and angry demonstrators.
Pensacola, Florida. Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock.com
In my view, there are plenty of issues for which to fault Chick-fil-A, but their chicken sandwiches are not one of them. Tender (real) chicken, coated with crisp and well-seasoned breading is served without fail to each and every diner who pulls up to the drive-through or steps up to the counter. They’ve always fried in peanut oil (the true Southerner’s fry-oil of choice) and make some pretty damn good waffle fries as well.
But for those who disagree, there are myriad options for getting a fried chicken sandwich out here in the Bay. In fact, it seems that fried chicken sandwiches are everywhere these days, popping up in food carts and upscale spots at a fast clip.
One such cultish restaurant sits on the corner of 51st and Telegraph in the hipper-than-thou Oakland neighborhood called Temescal. Open for short lunch hours Monday through Saturday, Bakesale Betty is somewhat of a chameleon. Originally opened as a stand at the North Oakland farmers’ market in 2002, the shop has changed identity, location, and size many times during the last ten years. At one point, they sold a plethora of pastries and several sandwich options, and even had two storefront locations. These days, the operation is smaller: They sell fried chicken and coleslaw sandwiches, cookies, and sliced fried chicken on coleslaw (“salad”) out of their storefront on Telegraph.
Despite their constantly changing business plan, Bakesale Betty (as well as just about any piece of fried chicken stuck between two slices of bread) retains its idolization in the East Bay. The wait for a sandwich can top an hour, and it is painfully easy to miss the short window of time in which they are sold. It’s hard to know if the owners have consciously cultivated the line or if its presence is simply a sign, like in the Chick-fil-A giveaway contests, of fanatics looking for another bite of a well-made sandwich.
I dropped in on Bakesale Betty’s for an early lunch a couple weeks ago. Expecting a long line filled with bleary-eyed hip foodies, I was greeted by groups of business people on lunch breaks and young mothers with their children. Most of the folks in line appeared to be regulars; I heard several mention the “short” line today. Indeed, my early arrival and good luck meant that I only waited ten to fifteen minutes to reach the front of the line and exclaim my order: “Fried chicken sandwich and a ginger cookie, please!”
There’s no indoor seating at Bakesale Betty, but the sidewalk outside is adorned with spray painted ironing boards and stools. On a gorgeous warm day like that one, it was nice to unwrap my monster sandwich and eat it while watching drivers run red lights.
At first bite, I was struck by the similarities to Chick-fil-A. The relatively tender and moist white meat chicken had a generous and deep golden brown crust, flecked with pepper and well-seasoned with salt and cayenne. The torpedo loaf was soft and sweet (albeit a bit bulky for my taste), yielding to the crunch of the chicken. Dust off the coleslaw and add a pickle and a squirt of mayo and you’d have a dead-ringer for the chicken sandwich of my youth.
But I doubt anyone here would want to dust off the coleslaw (and there’s nary a packet of mayo to be found in the shop). It’s the coleslaw that makes this a west coast sandwich—it’s a tangy, healthful blend of cabbage, parsley, onion, and jalapeno tossed together with a simple vinaigrette. Like I said: no mayonnaise in sight. This is exactly the kind of topping a cook concerned with vegetables would toss on fried chicken. The slaw also adds needed moisture to the sandwich; with no spread on the bread, every bite would be mighty dry if eaten naked.
That said I enjoyed my sandwich. The crisp slaw and tender-crunchy chicken worked in harmony to create a well-balanced exercise in texture and flavor. The ginger cookie was also excellent: spicy, chewy, and flecked with sugar. But after packing up my leftovers and driving away, I couldn’t help but wonder if my time and eleven dollars (yes, you read right; Betty charges an outrageous eleven dollars for a sandwich and cookie) could have been better spent somewhere else. If I had waited in line for an hour, would I have still enjoyed the sandwich? Is any sandwich (fried chicken or otherwise) worth such a wait?
Those standing in line at Betty’s or in the Chick-fil-A contests would, of course, shout a definite yes. Those who prefer their food with a little less controversy may want to make one themselves.