A fried food phenomenon

The fried chicken sandwich is far from a new concept. The combination of bun and fried poultry has been enjoyed for decades, but never did America embrace it as fervently as when Popeyes released its version in 2019. 

The sandwich, which consisted simply of a fried chicken breast, pickles, and mayo on a Brioche bun, quickly went viral on social media, and soon hungry patrons were waiting multiple hours in the drive-thru to get their hands on the phenomenon. Several locations were unable to keep up with the insatiable demand and, astonishingly, ran out of chicken.

But diners weren’t the only ones caught up in the nationwide craze. Chefs at all levels saw Popeyes’ success and began dreaming of new possibilities.

“Popeyes is to blame for it, and everyone hopped on that train and tried to take it in different directions and make it their own,” Adolfo Gutierrez, a line cook at Block 16, said. “There were always chicken sandwiches, but now most restaurants, especially fast food or quick turn-and-burn restaurants, have a chicken sandwich. It’s because of Popeyes.”

As the popularity of fried chicken sandwiches exploded, restaurants across America introduced refined versions on their menus. Omaha was no exception, and the city now boasts several standout fried chicken sandwiches that outshine their original inspiration.

That includes Dirty Birds, a restaurant in The Switch Beer & Food Hall that was opened on January 2, 2020 by former Kitchen Table cooks Dan Whalen and Moses Moseley. After testing their fried chicken concept twice at Dandelion Pop-Up events, the pair took the leap and introduced their pickle-fried chicken and sandwiches to Omaha — hopeful, but unsure the concept would stick.

“When we first opened (the restaurant), we were wondering how we were going to pay rent this month,” Moseley said. “We were taking a big step, going out and quitting our jobs. We brought a friend up from Kansas City (to work) and we were like, ‘Um, we might not be able to pay you…’”

Those concerns evaporated as soon as diners sunk their teeth into the crunchy exterior of the chicken and discovered the juicy, tender meat inside. Dirty Birds quickly became a social media darling and sold out of poultry several times in its opening weeks of operation.

The secret to Dirty Birds’ success is a two-day pickle brine, which cures the meat and helps it cook quicker. The brine injects the entire piece of chicken with flavor, so much so that the Dirty Birds’ cooks break one of the cardinal rules of deep frying — they don’t add any salt when the chicken exits the fryer.

“You’re always taught, ‘Oh, this came out of the fryer. Salt, right away,’” Whalen said. “But our chicken is seasoned the whole way through. The brine just makes it a well-seasoned piece of meat. It’s very consistent.”

Dirty Birds’ now-beloved recipe wasn’t developed overnight, however. Finding the right ratio of flours and spices took “forever” according to Moseley, who said he’d call OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) on himself for oppressive working hours if he could. He and Whalen credit their partners at Kitchen Table for helping them develop and perfect the recipe that now has Omahans flocking to the Blackstone District.

The flavor and moistness of that chicken inspired Brooke Nicole Williams, a rising Block 16 line cook that tasted Whalen and Moseley’s chicken at Dandelion Pop-Up in September 2019, to create her own version of the fried chicken sandwich. She experimented and added personal touches like honey-lime mayo and dill slaw before presenting it to Block 16 co-owner Paul Urban as an idea for one of the restaurant’s daily specials. Featured on November 3, 2020, the sandwich was a hit, and Urban loved it so much that he called Williams a month later and suggested the item be added to Block 16’s permanent menu. After a few tweaks, including adding an in-house tajin seasoning and housemade pickles, Brooke’s Chickenwich was born.

“I was not expecting that at all. It’s such an honor for me,” Williams said. “Chicken is delicious. If you can have a really crispy, delicious chicken sandwich that is just remarkable… I mean, you’ve had a McChicken from McDonald’s. It’s just whatever. But if you have something that stays crispy and adds extra flavor, that’s like, ‘I’ve been craving that. That’s what I want.’ That’s all it is. It’s just chicken, but you make it better.”

Such was Ryan Miller’s thinking as he constructed the menu at Bärchen Beer Garden. The owner didn’t originally intend to sell more than German pretzels and sausages, but decided to expand the menu in 2019. As the Popeyes craze consumed the nation, Miller and his team wanted to offer something similar… only with the option to add some heat.

While you can order a traditional fried chicken sandwich at Bärchen, the menu also includes two versions of Nashville Hot Chicken sandwiches (with varying spice levels), which are dunked in pepper-infused oil after frying to add some serious kick. After testing 15-20 iterations of the oil, Bärchen’s team settled on one that included brown sugar and dark brown sugar that would awaken the taste buds without engulfing them in flames.

“We wanted to make it noticeably hot, but with sweetness, and the garlic aioli and thick pickles balance out some of the heat,” Miller said. “So you get the heat, then the sweetness comes in, then there’s the coolness of the mayo and the pickles to help you recover.

“People have asked us to deliver it to West Virginia and Florida. They’re obviously joking, but we’ve gotten a great reception.”

The popularity of fried chicken sandwiches has exploded in recent years, and it’s not hard to see why the public adores the item so much. Fried chicken has long been a staple of American dining, and it presents a clean slate that talented chefs delight in experimenting on.

“It’s classic and it’s an open canvas,” Gutierrez said. “You can do so much with it, and it’s really hard not to like fried chicken.”

“We wish everyone had their own fried chicken sandwich,” Moseley added. “Because we want to try them all, too.”

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