I shook hands with a fried chicken sandwich. And then I ate it

Adella Miesner

When I first saw a photo of Michelin-starred restaurant Birdsong’s fried chicken sandwich, an item it offers through its pandemic-era casual spin-off, Birdbox, I immediately wanted to touch the claw. Adam Moussa, the senior social media manager for Eater, made a gay joke about it on Twitter, and I was […]

When I first saw a photo of Michelin-starred restaurant Birdsong’s fried chicken sandwich, an item it offers through its pandemic-era casual spin-off, Birdbox, I immediately wanted to touch the claw. Adam Moussa, the senior social media manager for Eater, made a gay joke about it on Twitter, and I was thrilled to learn that I could get it RIGHT THAT MOMENT! (That’s social media for you!) It’s the Popeye’s chicken sandwich seen through the lens of the Twilight Zone, featuring a deboned chicken leg quarter with a foot still attached, gnarled through a combination of rigor mortis and a bath in frying oil. Have you ever shaken hands with a sandwich? Have you ever dared to dream so big?

Last week, I tried the spicy variation of the sandwich ($18). When you pick it up, it comes unassembled, with the massive fried leg quarter sequestered in its own box, a billowing red-brown cloud of crackled breading with a foot sticking out of it. It just looked like I received a dead bird in a box. The assembly instructions, which made reference to “Claude the claw,” furthered that point, though it’s curious that, while the foot had a name, the chicken didn’t. If I met anyone whose foot had a name, I’d probably run.

But the chicken was already dead and I had to deal with the body’s disposal, so I kept on and started building my poultry Jenga tower. Bread, hot sauce, pickles, chicken, coleslaw, bread. This Baba Yaga house of a sandwich stood nearly 8 inches tall when I put it together, big enough that only a python or a pit bull could eat it without major discomfort.

I grabbed its hand. It was the first time I’d shaken a stranger’s appendage in almost seven months. Its handshake was firm but not very reciprocal, on account of it being dead.

To eat it, you have to smash it down to a reasonable size. In the process, the dry breading, flavored with spicy oil and savory nutritional yeast, shatters into a flavorful and crunchy brown confetti. The spicy oil, paired with Birdsong’s “raging falcon spicy sauce,” gave the sandwich a just-right amount of heat, though I wished the pickles were a little sweeter to help offset the spice level. The coleslaw, with cabbage shaved a little too thin and dressed a little too much, was a mostly limp presence here.

But overall, the chicken was perfectly moist, serving as a welcome contrast to the intense breading. Dim sum lovers, I’m sorry to say that the foot is too dried out to really enjoy as a morsel in and of itself: It’s purely decorative.

Actually, you probably want to pull off the foot so it doesn’t caress your cheek as you eat, but maybe you’d like that, you sicko.

On the podcast

This week on the Extra Spicy podcast, Justin Phillips and I converse with Chronicle wine critic Esther Mobley about the many wildfires that have raged throughout Wine Country this year, destroying numerous acres of land. She explains what’s at stake here: With more than a dozen wineries damaged and even more threatened by grapes affected by smoke taint, this season might prove to be a calamitous one for the industry. We talk about the wineries impacted by the fires, the economic toll of the pandemic combined with fire season and what the future of wine in the Bay Area might look like as climate change makes fires more frequent and more intense.

What I’m eating

The highlight of my week was judging the pickle competition for this year’s Good Food Awards. Early on Sunday morning, I pulled out 21 anonymized jars full of fermented wonders: vinegar pickles, lacto-fermented vegetables, sauerkrauts and kimchis. To refresh my palate, I armed myself with thin slices of Parmesan cheese and cold water.

Though I don’t know which purveyor made what, I can at least describe some of what I tasted. There were meaty green walnuts, mysterious brown globes that revealed creamy flesh scented with Christmas spices; bullet-size Arbequina olives with a clear brine that accentuated their fruitiness; pinkish sauerkraut that set the mouth aflame with slices of serrano chile and spicy garlic; and thick and firm slices of soy sauce-brined jalapeño and onion, perfect for any grilled meat taco.

When I was a kid, I would go to the Boone County State Fair in Belvidere, Ill., and, between squealing at piglets and downing paper rafts of greasy fried cheese curds, I’d stare at the orderly rows of pickle jars submitted for the yearly competition. Lines of green beans stood upright like tight clusters of pencils, while ridged slices of cucumber floated in dubious-looking brines. As I saw ribbons affixed to the prettiest jars I used to wonder how one would judge a pickle. Well, now I know — it’s grueling work.

Recommended reading

• The Trump administration has been proudly promoting a program that feeds struggling families. But a recent change gives the money to big corporations instead of local farms. Janelle Bitker has the background on how the USDA’s policies have impacted Bay Area food security work.

• As Justin Phillips reports, indoor dining at 25% capacity is now on for San Francisco’s restaurants. Some, like historic John’s Grill, are ready to embrace reopening, citing the uniqueness of the in-house dining experience, while others are taking it slow out of caution. The biggest question here: Is the public at large ready? What about you?

• If you haven’t seen it yet, Eater SF’s latest and I think greatest project is all about the sandwichification of Bay Area restaurants, and it’s based on an observation that I totally agree with: Everyone’s doing sandwiches right now because they’re affordable and perfect for takeout.

Bite Curious is a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, delivered to inboxes on Monday mornings. Follow along on Twitter: @Hooleil

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