An expertly deep-fried piece of buttermilk-coated chicken just might be the tastiest food on the planet. Texturally, it plays to a delicious duality, with a crunchy outside that traps the soft, hot, and moist flesh inside. Flavor-wise, it’s a blank canvas for chefs to play with the various herbs and savory spices that can be both mixed into the batter and soaked into the chicken itself. So with that tactical meat advantage, it’s of little wonder why so many restaurants now serve a fried chicken sandwich on their menus, a trend I’ve been exploring from Montecito to Manhattan in recent years.
My modern foray began back in 2013, when The Shop Café opened on Milpas Street and started serving their General Sanders, whose chicken gets topped with apple slaw, sweet and sour carrots, and spicy mayo, served on a soft bun, which seems to be the fried meat’s ubiquitous bread buddy. The $10 sando went down way too fast, a hazard that’s become common for these treats, whose salty side is usually cut by the freshness of crisp veggies. Last year, I stumbled into similar joy at The Honor Bar in Montecito, whose Ding’s Chicken Sandwich adds Asian slaw and baby Swiss to the mix. I’ve recommended it to quite a few people since, and though it’s not cheap at $16 — it is Coast Village Road, after all — not a soul has expressed disappointment.
Soon, I couldn’t visit a restaurant and not order this dish if it was on the menu, so I started wondering if there was something in my taste-bud DNA that predisposed me to this affinity. Then I remembered Carl’s Jr.’s Bacon Swiss Crispy Chicken Fillet Sandwich, a favorite of mine growing up, when I thought fried white-meat chicken might be healthier than red-meat burgers. (Not necessarily, although Carl’s now sells burgers that exceed the 1,000-calorie mark with gusto.) But as my fast food visits drastically slowed during college and are all but nonexistent now (In-N-Out doesn’t count, right?), my love for this American classic was forgotten.
Thank the food gods, then, for the return of casual comfort, under which I would certainly file the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich. My latest experience — and quite possibly the best yet, both for the food itself and the overall ambiance — was at Finch & Fork on the ground floor of the Kimpton-owned Canary Hotel at Carrillo and Chapala streets, where the B.F.C. Sandwich is on the lunch menu but is also a central player in the renewed happy hour menu, called “Early Bird” (4-6pm) and “Night Flight” (9-10pm).
Chef James Siao, a 10-year Kimpton employee who took over the kitchen about four years ago, remembers a fried chicken sandwich at Arby’s from his upbringing in Ohio, where his dad ran a Chinese restaurant. But his $11 version is considerably evolved, topped with kale slaw, a lemon yogurt dressing that’s lighter than mayo, a smoked honey mustard, and house-made bread-and-butter pickles, served on a brioche bun. It looks fantastic — I posted a picture of mine on Instagram, and people were digitally drooling immediately — but tastes even better: crunchy, soft, tart, and smoky, with just a touch of spicy. Eating two would have been easy.
The new between-meal menu is part of a stronger focus on the Finch & Fork bar, which bartender Andy Nelson started managing about seven months ago. He spent the past seven years at Jackson 20 in Washington, D.C. — an establishment founded by another loyal Kimpton-ite, Derek Simcik, now at the Goodland Hotel in Goleta — but Nelson said it was an easy choice to join Siao’s Santa Barbara team. “It’s not every day that you can work with someone who is creative but knows business at the same time,” said Nelson, whose goal is to “elevate the bar experience here a little bit.”
He paired my B.F.C. with his Virginia Gentleman, a favorite from D.C. that combines bourbon, honey whiskey, lemon juice, bitters, and ginger beer. “It’s a whiskey cocktail for non-whiskey drinkers,” he explained, and, like the sandwich, it offered a little bit of everything, with a slightly sour, slightly sweet, slightly smoked profile going down quite easy.
But even Nelson’s eyes widened when my sandwich came out. The North Carolina native is a proud Southerner, so only with reluctance would he admit that Siao’s fried chicken — made by a Midwestern-raised, Pittsburgh-educated, California transplant of Chinese heritage by way of Scottsdale — may be the best he’s ever had. Said Nelson as I dove in, “I gotta take a break soon so I can go order one before happy hour is over.”
Finch & Fork: 31 W. Carrillo St., (805) 879-9100, finchandforkrestaurant.com
The Shop Café: 730 N. Milpas St., (805) 845-1696, facebook.com/TheShopCafe
The Honor Bar: 1255 Coast Village Rd., (805) 969-6964, honorbar.com