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Eating out in Ottawa: The city’s chicken sandwiches ranged from great to foul

Nashville-style chicken sandwiches seem to be breeding, so I set out to discover the best of the flock

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Holly’s Hot Chicken
45 Armstrong Street, 613-695-7737, hollyshotchicken.ca
Open: Wed-Fri 11am-8pm, Sat 11am-4pm, closed Sunday, Monday, Tuesday
Prices: All chicken sandwiches are $10
Access: Steps to the front door

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Frankie’s Spicy Nashville Chicken
From Lone Star Bar and Grill locations
frankieshotchicken.ca

Hot Chicken Hanley Nashville
From select locations in Ottawa Gatineau
hanleyshotchicken.com

Chicken Renegade
From Jack Astor Bar & Grill locations
renegadechicken.ca

A few weeks ago, I started a choppy but gritty regimen of eating chicken sandwiches.

Noting that fried chicken sandwiches, and especially hot Nashville-style chicken sandwiches, were proliferating, I set out to determine the best of the flock.

Lots of chicken sandwiches later, here are my conclusions.

Chicken sandwiches can, on rare occasions, be sublime. Most commonly, they are second-order guilty pleasures. And sometimes it disappoints, sitting in your stomach like a bowling ball, making you wonder if you’ve cut short your life just for something fried and crunchy.

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In March, the chicken sandwich venture got off to a good start, with visits to Holly’s Hot Chicken, which had just opened in Hintonburg where Meat Press used to be.

I was late to the Holly’s Hot Chicken party. Since 2018, Holly Laham has been offering much-talked-about chicken sandwiches on many pop-up sites. Somehow I kept missing those opportunities.

I was impressed by sampling the sandwiches from a deli only meat store.

Her sandwiches were, frankly, in the same league as the sandwiches from Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, which I’ll admit shielded me from during recent road trips to Toronto. It might hurt my critical credibility to say it, but I find that Popeye’s sandwiches are not only extremely tasty, they tick all the boxes in terms of flavor, texture, and moisture, but are also very consistent.

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Two of the three holly sandwiches I tried were excellent, with huge slices of chicken that had crunchy exteriors but not overly masked meat which was semi-comic but arguably just a touch unseasoned. While one of the outside sandwiches had drier chicken, the steak creations were for the most part satisfying.

The classic meatloaf appetizer (a buttermilk sauce, bread and butter pickles that tastes like homemade iceberg lettuce) complemented her sandwiches nicely.

Seven flavor profiles are now available here, which is a little more than they were in March. Sandwiches are considered “plain gin” to keep from the heat, while pepper heads can opt for sandwiches mixed with habanero or ghost pepper mixes. Between them are two levels of hot Nashville-style chicken, which is usually dipped in chili-based oil and can pack a punch. I could handle an extra hot sandwich, which left a huge glow in my mouth and made my scalp sweat.

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For those who dare, Holly's Hot Chicken Extra Hot Chicken Sandwich.
For those who dare, Holly’s Hot Chicken Extra Hot Chicken Sandwich. Photography by Peter Hum /Post Media

Altogether, the chicken meat sandwiches tasted like high quality, handcrafted produce and were best enjoyed right away, on the stairs outside their shop or in a nearby car.

I’ve also tried chicken sandwiches from three new brands that have come out during the pandemic. Frankie’s Nashville Hot Chicken is a side hustle inside more than 20 Lone Star Texas Grill locations in Ontario while Renegade Chicken emerges from Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill. Hanley’s Nashville Hot Chicken is a two-year-old brand with four locations from Stittsville to Orleans. On Hanley’s website, it calls itself the “Cloud Kitchen Network…Partnering With Restaurant Operators.”

In general, sandwiches from these brands are hard to spot because the quality seemed to vary depending on the locations I visited and the length of the trip home.

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Frankie’s, which launched just over a year ago, emphasizes its goodwill “straight out of Tennessee” on its website, and says its chicken fillets are marinated for a day and a half, all in an effort to “push the boundaries of heat and flavor.”

The Frankie sandwiches I took home were a bit unwieldy, consisting of three large chicken strips between their buns. The chicken was impressively moist, except that it lacked a bit of salt, and more than that, it lacked crunchiness.

Frankie’s “spicy” chicken has never been so hot. To be fair, instead of ordering a sandwich ominously labeled “hot AF (like Frankie)”, I went out.

I’m familiar with what Chef David Chang once said after eating a very spicy Nashville chicken sandwich. Zhang said during an episode of his Netflix TV show delicious ugly.

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When Renegade Chicken launched in May 2021, it was upfront about its origin story.

A press release said Service Inspired Restaurants (the parent company of Jack Astor) faced “significant challenges” due to closing restrictions, which have led to reduced sales, layoffs and even restaurant closures.

“It was very challenging to say the least. Renegade Chicken was born as a response to these challenging times, drawing on the incredible talent we have been able to keep with us and the locations of our existing restaurants.”

This pandemic hub’s website urges that its chicken is “originated in Canada, antibiotic-free, sustainably raised, and not frozen or soaked for at least 24 hours before being hand-dipped, fried, and tossed in a special blend of secret seasonings.” We Also a proud scratch kitchen.”

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However, despite this backlog, the Renegade sandwiches we brought home—the largest and most expensive in this survey—were at best inconsistent. Some recent specimens from Renegade’s Lansdowne have been fine, if very light on the crunch. But a few weeks ago the sandwiches from the Hunt Club were sloppy and full of overly salted chicken.

Consistency was also an issue with the Hanley sandwiches we had on Queen St. Fare, where Capitol Burger Counter also distributes Hanley chicken sandwiches. A few weeks ago on a Sunday night, I ate a painfully cooked chicken hanley sandwich with a crunchy crust. On this week’s lunchtime visit, samples were much better with thick, crunchy exteriors coated with moist, well-spiced meat.

In the end, I will make a special effort to go to Holly’s if the craving for chicken sandwiches arises. There, or Babai.

phum@postmedia.com

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2022-05-19 11:09:31

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