tldr; Fried chicken sandwiches are so delicious, but are an occasional splurge. I reviewed sandwiches from three Berkeley restaurants. The verdict? They all provide yummy sandwiches worth eating, but El Pollo Picante was my fav.
Table of Contents
- The reason
- Why you should trust me
- Who is this for
- How we picked
- The research
- The candidates
- The competition
Since shelter-in-place, we eat take-out Friday evenings. By Friday, we’re too exhausted to cook and have run out of food ideas. Eating out supports local restaurants and provides a family meal without having to cook.
I’ve been craving fried chicken sandwich for a while. Last week, we ordered Popeye’s and I was underwhelmed, but that’s another story.
V and I got the idea of doing a fried chicken sandwich taste test walking around downtown Berkeley.
Why you should trust me
I have been eating fried chicken sandwiches since I was in elementary school. Over the years, I graduated from the McChicken and the BK Chicken sandwich to more sophisticated fare such as Bette’s Bakesale.
In short, if there is fried chicken sandwich on the menu, I know what I’m ordering.
Who is this for
I’m writing this for a Berkeley or East Bay reader who is a fan of local restaurants and fried chicken sandwiches. This piece is not exhaustive of all Berkeley spots nor of fried chicken places, but, hopefully, these are some new restaurants that you otherwise wouldn’t think of trying.
How we picked
There is a surprising number of restaurants that offer some form of fried chicken sandwich. We couldn’t try them all so here is how we picked.
- Berkeley-based: We didn’t want to drive too far for to-go. All locations are within a mile of each other off the downtown Shattuck corridor.
- No chains or franchises: Growing up, I loved me a McChicken and Chick-fil-a is actually my favorite fast-food fried chicken sandwich. It’s a damned shame, I can’t eat at Chick-fil-a any more. For the test, though, we really wanted to patronize and taste test unique sandwiches from local spots.
- Locally owned, under the radar: We live in Berkeley and do our best to support Berkeley restaurants. Related, we wanted to spotlight restaurants aren’t as well-known as others, like Bakesale Betty’s.
- The chicken sandwich is a highlight: For each of these restaurants, the sandwich isn’t the only thing on their menu, but it isn’t an afterthought. The fried chicken sandwich are proudly advertised by these restaurants.
What makes a great fried chicken sandwich
This is necessarily subjective…
- Bun: Not too tall, not too hard. The bun is never the star of the sandwich, yet it is the container for all the goodness and has a tough job to do. Not all buns (hee, hee) stack up.
- Cutlet: I’m looking for chicken that is crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. The breading and the meat are a tight fit. Well seasoned with a balance of grease and flavor. In the end, I am eating fried chicken after all.
- Toppings and Sauce: There are many variations of toppings. One is the minimalist “Chick-fil-a” pickles and sauce. And there is the slaw and salad type of greens popularized by Bakesale Betty’s. The toppings need to complement and compliment the chicken cutlet. Toppings are the vehicle to balance out the chicken with brightness through acidity or clean crunch via greens.
Now, come with me on a fried chicken sandwich journey.
Their menu description: “Thai fried chicken, Brioche bun with pickled papaya and creamy Sriracha sauce”
Weight: 430 grams
Opened during the pandemic, Southside Station is run by a super-friendly Thai mom and pop team. The husband is an alumnus of the Cheeseboard Collective which is why they also have pizza on their menu. Their Thai fried chicken wings are amazing so I had high hopes for their sandwich.
The Southside Station sandwich is a beautiful and hearty sandwich, sitting on a browned brioche-bun. They lovingly put two fried boneless chicken thighs over a Thai-inspired papaya cole slaw and sriracha mayo sauce.
Oh boy, was this delicious but there was too much going on here.
I have this suspicion that on their own, each part of the sandwich would be delicious. Combined, it ended up being a bit overwhelming and a tad on the greasy side.
Order it and split with someone else.
Verdict: 4 stars
Their menu description: “Turmeric Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich, served with housemade mix salad and our signature tikka sauce.”
Weight: 489 grams
Barbarian–tucked away next to Comal–was the spot that started the idea for a taste test. From the outside, it is more Indian grocery store than restaurant. But “you had me at ‘tumeric’,” was what we were thinking we first saw the menu.
How is the sandwich? The sandwich’s special ingredient, tumeric, gives it a standout Indian-food flavor, but the house slaw moistened the bottom bun too much for my liking. The white meat cutlet were also my least favorite as it was not as crisp or craggly as the others. The bun itself was more a deli roll than the brioche-style used by the other restaurants.
Barbarian gives you a tikka masala sauce that is worth the price of admission.
Verdict: 3 stars
PS: V was attracted to the “House Corn Salad” at the Barbarian and was slightly concerned that it didn’t contain any corn. (False rumor, it does have corn.)
Their menu description: “Two perfectly fried chicken breast pieces stacked on a freshly toasted brioche bun. Served with our homemade spicy mayo and sliced dill pickles. Served with a side of seasoned fries, homemade coleslaw and our famous spicy chili and garlic honey.”
Weight: 384 grams
El Pollo Picante is a relatively new entrant to the Berkeley restaurant scene.
Their sandwich features two crisp chicken breast-meat cutlets with strong but not overpowering heat. The sandwich lives up to its picante moniker. Toppings are minimal: two pickle slices and spicy mayo.
Of the three sandwiches, El Pollo Picante’s chicken was by far the best especially if you can stand the spice. The cutlet crust had crags and edges and was tap-tap-tap crisp. The brioche bun was the perfect vehicle for the sandwich.
I enjoyed this sandwich the most.
Verdict: 5 stars
Their sandwich came with a side of fries which we ended up dipping in the Barbarian’s tikka masala sauce–f’ing delicious.
We got many good suggestions from friends on a facebook post. Here are some others that were considered but not included.
- Bakesale Betty has a well-loved, amazing fried chicken sandwich. They’re the Steph Curry of local fried chicken sandwiches. Here, I tried to highlight up and coming rookies instead. Bakesale’s pies and desserts are a must-try if you haven’t had.
- Gregoire was recommended multiple times too.
- Butcher’s Son is a vegan butcher shop and has sweet mustard fried chicken sandwich. Heard many good things about Butcher’s son.
- Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen has a chicken po’boy that looks yummy.
This country loves fried chicken sandwiches and with good reason. Chicken fried sandwiches are the perfect fusion of our love for hot, crispy fried poultry that one can eat in a warm bun with cole slaw as a topping. A summer picnic in your hands, if you will.
Southside Station and Barbarian were both good, but fell short in slightly different ways.
Barbarian probably had the weakest sandwich by execution. It didn’t live to my expectation as the breading was not as crisp and the bun getting a little soggy. Perhaps if we had ordered and ate right there, it would have been a different story.
Southside’s sandwich was too much and a bit on the greasy side. To be fair, eating three fried chicken sandwiches might have something to do with the maximum grease intake.
My pick was El Pollo Picante. The chicken was perfectly fried, the heat was on point yet not 911 emergency levels.
In the end, though, all three restaurants and their fried chicken sandwiches are worth trying and definitely worth supporting.