In their book 500 Things to Eat Before It's too Late, award-winning food journalists Jane and Michael Stern set out to catalog the nation's finest regional cuisine. The fruit of nearly 35 years on the road, the book guides diners to local specialties that are so good, they warrant an out-of-the-way trip. Commanding almost a full page are the fried chicken restaurants of rural Barberton, with special attention paid to Belgrade Gardens, the progenitor of them all.
Barberton-style chicken, as it has come to be known, is more than a dish — it is a ritual, complete with trappings prescribed by generations of tradition. Regardless which of the numerous chicken houses one chooses, a diner can expect almost identical experiences. Rather than set out to distinguish themselves from one another, competing restaurants like Belgrade Gardens, White House Chicken, Hopocan Gardens, and Milich's Village Inn do things pretty much exactly the same way. That's not to say there aren't subtle differences in taste — and strong personal allegiances to particular spots.
Barberton-style chicken might just as accurately be called Serbian-style chicken. Young immigrants Mike and Smilka Topalsky opened Belgrade Gardens on their father's dairy farm 77 years ago, using recipes and techniques their families imported from the Old Country. Three generations later, little has changed.
"The recipes we use today are the recipes that my grandmother learned as a little girl back in Serbia," explains Milos Papich, proprietor of Belgrade. "Our goal is to do right by the people before us. You don't mess with quality."
When former Belgrade staffers left long ago to start their own chicken houses, those recipes spread across the Barberton community like fat in a hot skillet. Rival restaurants came and went, but along the way the city built a reputation as the "fried chicken capital of the world." Today, four main operations still exist, some with multiple locations.
So what is Barberton-style chicken? It starts with fresh, never frozen, Amish-raised, Ohio-reared chicken. The bird is cut into numerous pieces, including wee drumettes, wings, and backs, which are euphemistically billed as "chicken ribs." The practice is said to be a holdover from the Depression, when maximizing servings meant stretching a dollar. The meat is lightly salted, dusted with flour, tossed in an egg wash, and rolled in bread crumbs. It is fried — always and forever — in lard, which bestows upon the crust a copper-colored glow that rivals the prettiest Hawaiian sunset. That crust seals in every last drop of chickeny goodness.
The success of Barberton chicken lies in its simplicity. The meat is not subjected to a buttermilk bath. There are no 11 secret herbs and spices. Finished pieces aren't drizzled with honey and truffle oil. When you fry each batch to order in pork fat, there is little need for paprika and Old Bay. What shines through is the taste of chicken — hot, juicy, and delicious chicken. White meat or dark, each piece is always perfectly cooked. And those backs? While there isn't a lot of meat on them, they are fully encased in that dreamy crust. And isn't that the best part of fried chicken?
Dining at any of Barberton's chicken houses is eerily identical, like poultry déjà-vu. First, you'll be asked "white or brown," a reference to the free sandwich bread that is served at the start of the meal. Chicken dinners come in a variety of sizes and configurations, from small all-white to large all-dark. Two different restaurants offer something called "The Rooster," a 12-piece platter that evokes thoughts of David Sedaris. Some folks, believe it or not, order nothing but the backs. Meals include a choice of sides from a list that is the same from joint to joint, right down to the green beans and cottage cheese. Pretty much everybody, though, orders the cole slaw, fries, and hot sauce, which, strangely enough, is neither hot nor sauce. A stewed tomato and rice dish with Serbian origins, hot sauce can be used as a dip for the chicken or fries, or eaten as a side dish.
Apart from subtle differences in crust color and seasoning, the chicken from shop to shop is remarkably consistent, as are the sides. Some of the slaws are shredded while others are finely chopped, but they all sport a sweet-tart dressing made with vinegar and sugar. The hot sauce, a love-it-or-leave-it thing if ever there was one, ranges from sweet and mild to tangy and faintly spicy. Fries are of the fresh-cut, skin-on variety.
One look at the massive parking lot of Belgrade Gardens and it's clear that the place can handle a crowd. The largest of the bunch, the restaurant is able to seat about 300 at a go. But the sad truth is, rare are the days when the lot is full. As local industry dried up over the years, so too did the daily crowds at Barberton's famed chicken houses. With many of the restaurants pushing 50, 60, and even 80 years old — and boasting the interior design to prove it — continued survival is anything but a given.
So the question becomes: How long will you be able to enjoy real Barberton-style chicken before it's too late?
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