No, it’s not your imagination. Cleveland, like many American cities, is awash in fried chicken places. It’s nearly impossible to take a step without feeling the crunch of runaway breading beneath one’s feet. In addition to the longstanding fast-food chains there are the aggressively expanding regional favorites and plucky local startups. Even places that don’t technically qualify as “fried chicken restaurants” are carving out space on the menu for a fried chicken sandwich.
Part of the reason for the explosion, duh, is that fried chicken is and always will be amazing, a near-perfect arrangement of crunch, salt, schmaltz and spice. The other main factor is that it’s well suited to carry-out and delivery, making the concept ideal for the fast-casual framework that presently is upending the hospitality landscape. When you combine those two components, you also happen to end up with a nearly pandemic-proof business model.
While many modern fried chicken projects seem to have been formulated in a boardroom to achieve peak profitability, Chicken Ranch clearly originates from the mind of an obsessive chef. Given his years as chef-partner at places like Forage Public House, Oak Barrel and Bold, all of which boasted lengthy and eclectic menus, there are few foods Demetrios Atheneos doesn’t excel at. But fried chicken has been omnipresent, a pet dating clear back to his days at Deagan’s.
When Atheneos became aware of a turnkey space in his own neck of the woods, he quickly put pen to paper and devised a concept. The two-month-old eatery slid into the Cedar Center space vacated by the Rice Shop. It took the chef less than three weeks to convert the business and start selling – you guessed it – fried chicken.
“There’s this evolution of chefs and restaurants going on right now,” he says. “I’m still going to be doing the things that I’ve always done, which is farm-to-table inspired and chef-driven, just affordable, fast and casual.”
The birds here are buttermilk-brined, battered and fried in the form of tenders ($7/2, $10/3), wings ($8.50/5) and boneless thighs ($5). Far from a thin, crisp, eggshell-brittle crust, this is the kind of batter that sends craggy, crunchy shards in all directions, making the pieces look three times their actual size. The seasoning runs clear through, from that outrageous mahogany-hued armor to the supple-soft meat within.
There’s only one way to improve on hot, crispy, aggressively seasoned fried chicken, and that’s by dunking it into creamy-cool ranch dressing. That impeccable ranch is just one of 16 (yes, 16) sauces that Atheneos makes from scratch to gild the so-called lily. I tasted my way through a healthy number of them and found them all to be unique, flavorful and well balanced. They span the spectrum from bracing blue cheese to combustible Cleveland hot. Both the honey mustard and house BBQ are tasty enough to bottle, while the black garlic toum has just the right mix of garlic, lemon and funk.
Those brawny fried thighs land in three-fisted sandwiches like the Korean Fried Chicken ($10), a jaw-breaking stack of chicken, slaw, pickles, candied jalapeños, soy-chile jam and hot sauce on a soft, eggy bun. Also in the sandwich category is a fiery Nashville Hot version and a mild-mannered crispy chicken with buttermilk mayo.
In the non-chicken arena there’s a half-pound portion of zesty tail-on shrimp ($9) that arrives in a smoky, spicy, buttery broth not unlike that of New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp. The white cheddar mac and cheese ($7) is appropriately satisfying, with al dente corkscrew pasta bathed in a creamy but subtle sauce. Vegans and meat-eaters alike will enjoy the hearty texture and barely-there spice batter surrounding the popcorn cauliflower ($8).
Don’t overlook the Dino kale slaw ($4), a healthy, flavorful toss of dinosaur kale, purple cabbage and shredded carrot in a light vinaigrette. There’s a larger, more “proper” salad as well that includes more vegetables and a choice of dressings.
Most items include sauces, pickles and a pale-yellow corn cake. But no meal from Chicken Ranch is complete without an order of crinkle-cut fries ($4). That golden-brown zig-zag exterior grips sauces like a dream, and the shape seems to hold up better to travel than others.
Craft beer fans should consider placing an order here simply for the suds. How many take-out joints keep their coolers stocked with the likes of 3 Floyds Zombie Dust, New Holland Dragon's Milk White Stout and Urban Artifact’s blackberry sour The Gadget.
Atheneos is partnering on the project with his brother Niko. They named it Chicken Ranch in honor of their uncle, who ran a joint in New York with the same name back in the 1980s. I’ll be returning soon to check out the just-unveiled weekend brunch starring buttermilk biscuits and gravy, bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, and chicken and waffles.
13892 Cedar Rd., University Hts.