Labor Day Luxury
Major Dave’s opens in time for summer’s last holiday
By Erica Wayne 08/28/2014
Like many in our East Pasadena neighborhood, I’ve been driving past a little storefront sandwiched between Starbucks and Juice It Up! on North Hill Avenue for months, waiting for the “Major Dave’s Chicken Opening Soon” sign to come down. The moment I first spotted it back in early spring my heart skipped a beat. A Delmarva native, I was reared on home-fried chicken and have been looking for a reasonable facsimile thereof ever since I came West.
After that first pass, I checked out Major Dave online. Almost everything posted in “Our Story” increased my anticipation. It seems Major Dave’s dad (also Dave) started making fried chicken many years back for family and friends. There was usually enough to last for days and (like the leftover chicken my sister and I ate as kids) it stayed crisp even after prolonged refrigeration.
Of course, the two Daves hailed from Arizona, not the Mid-Atlantic or the South, where poultry aficionados know in their heart of hearts the best fried chicken is made. But, hey, anyone who acknowledges that cold fried chicken is not only edible but worth selling is a priori my type of chef. So I drove past the storefront and checked Major Dave’s Facebook page obsessively for the next few months.
The wait seemed endless, but finally (not in time for our Memorial Day party or for our July Fourth picnic) Major Dave’s opened the first week in August. And I, along with the rest of the neighborhood, finally got to check it out. With whetted appetite, bated breath and all the other clichés about long-awaited events, I called in a pickup order for dinner with friends on Saturday.
Major Dave’s website describes his chicken in almost as much detail as the waitress in the first episode of “Portlandia,” who not only mentions that hers are local, organic, heritage, with four acres of woodland roaming land and a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts, but shows diners Fred and Carrie pictures and papers for the specific chicken they “will be enjoying this evening” whose name, she confides, is Colin.
Major Dave’s chicken, likewise, is “ethically raised without added hormones, antibiotics, or GMO feeds, and never frozen.” It is “the highest quality free range chicken available … no preservatives … no additives.” OK, so we never got our chicken’s name or picture. Actually, if I had, I’d probably have canceled my order and headed to the nearest vegan restaurant to quell my guilt with quinoa — the spirit is vegetarian but the flesh is definitely carnivorous.
Fried chicken, even as carefully selected and prepared as Major Dave’s, still doesn’t top the healthy food list; but his sides may help you feel better about pigging out (or is that fowling out?) on crusted, well-oiled bird skin. Nary a potato, noodle or biscuit! Instead, there’s more wholesome stuff like toasted shaved Brussels sprouts with bacon, shallots and olive oil; Caesar salad made with kale; and black beans, avocado, sweet corn, bell peppers and tomatoes tossed in olive oil and lime. This last is described as “a great vegan option,” but, come on, what vegan would step foot into a fried-chicken joint?
Our first order: six hot breasts (three original/three spicy – each $4.50) and six similarly prepared thighs – $3.50) with large sides of coleslaw, roasted corn, tomato and feta salad, whipped garlic cauliflower with chicken gravy and green onions and the aforementioned Brussels sprouts (each $9) with six teensy corn muffins gratis.
When we arrived at the spanking new red, white and blue restaurant with five clocks on the wall behind the counter, each set to local time in one of Major Dave’s former military deployments, there were only two spicy thighs left so a pair of legs (each $2.50) was substituted for the third at half-price. The bill, with a 10 percent discount for orders of 10-plus pieces, was about $85 (over double the cost of a similar size KFC meal).
Then we made a huge mistake. We left the birds bucketed while we had (multiple) cocktails, appetizers and played a few hands of bridge. About two hours later, we finally filled our plates with room-temperature food. Now Major Dave’s chicken might be good hot or cold, but it’s certainly not at its best lukewarm unless removed from its packaging and allowed to “breathe” instead of steam. Thighs and legs were still juicy, breasts slightly drier, but the crisp was considerably diminished. We also found the coating way too salty and the difference between spicy and original marginal. (Aside from the sodium overdose, however, we did like its peppery flavor.)
Our opinion of the sides was mixed. We all adored the slaw, which had, according to the menu “just a kick of jalapeno” with a generous pinch of celery seed, carrot plus red and green pepper. The roasted corn salad was fragrant with rosemary, its slight under-salting tempered by the tangy feta. Our sprouts were delicious, mildly bitter with plenty of richly smoked bacon. But the garlicky cauliflower puree was almost totally lacking in additional seasoning, the bland gravy adding nothing.
Our chicken pieces were large and meaty. Free-range life obviously agreed with them. Despite our best efforts, we wound up taking five breasts home. And, here’s where they showed their true quality. Over the past week we’ve made three meals of cold Major Dave’s chicken and, despite our initial maltreatment, somehow their chicken-y goodness has prevailed. If the crunch hasn’t completely regenerated, the crust is still tasty and not at all greasy. Even the cauliflower, with lots of coarse pepper and a dash of salt, has been resurrected with honor.
This afternoon, having read on the website that they’d added chicken wings ($1.50 apiece), we returned to Major Dave’s for a few (piping-hot, half original, half spicy) which we ate as soon as we got them home. This time the different preps were clearly visible by color and, more important, by taste — one vamped down, the other up, both crisp and light, moderately salted and completely satisfying. Judging by today’s second taste test, it’s quite probable that Major Dave’s chicken and slaw will be joining us for Labor Day and many other occasions to follow.