It’s been around seven years since chef Ryan Adams shook up the Laguna Beach dining scene with family-style suppers at 370 Common. Called “Sunday Socials,” they were supposed to be evocative of meals at home, with everyone at the table and the TV off. On those nights, Adams and crew cooked only one main dish and served it with all the fixin’s. The concept quickly became a hit. Reservations regularly sold out, especially when fried chicken was the main course. In fact, Adams’ fried chicken dinners became so popular they were renamed “Fried Chicken Sundays,” which still happens at 370 Common like clockwork the last weekend of every month.
I never got around to going, but now I don’t have to. Adams has spun off his “Fried Chicken Sundays” into its own concept in Orange, taking over the space that used to be LinX. He calls the new place Buttermilk Fried Chicken, and it, too, has struck a nerve. There are reports of the kitchen running out of food by 7:45 p.m., which is pretty early when you consider it opens at 5 p.m.
Foodies who knew it was Adams’ first foray into KFC’s airspace obviously spurred the popularity. People are always intrigued when a fine-dining chef starts catering to the proletariat. A few years ago, the same thing happened when Ludo Lefebvre decided he wanted to do fried chicken out of a truck.
For me, the appeal was more economic. Through the years, I had seen the going rate for 370 Common’s three-course fried chicken meal ticking up to its current price of $42 per person, which is nearly a threefold increase from 2011, when it was $16. By comparison, the prices at Buttermilk Fried Chicken are bargain basement. As of this writing, a three-piece meal with two sides and cornbread costs $9.95, which is a very reasonable rate considering you actually get four pieces if you count the wing. Moreover, the three-piece is more than enough food for two people.
There will be plenty of mashed potatoes, their velvety smoothness possessing a rustic texture that suggests the addition of potato skins or possibly a varietal that’s something other than just plain old Russet. And you can tell immediately that the gravy ladled on top is properly made-from-scratch since it develops a telltale skin as it cools.
Though Buttermilk Fried Chicken is as stripped-down as a fast-casual could be—with communal tables, sweet tea in self-serve jugs and its entire menu on a cardboard sign—I noticed meticulous care and quality ingredients at play. One crew member’s job is solely to check the temperature of the just-fried chicken.
So far, Buttermilk produces the best creamed corn I’ve ever tasted. It swims in a thick, milky sauce that looks overly rich, but isn’t. The sauce actually amplifies the corn’s sweetness. As the kernels burst with juicy nectar in your mouth, all you taste is summer.
The green-chile-and-Cheddar cornbread is wonderful, too. Flaky, crumbly and tender, this is a next-level gourmet biscuit the likes of which you’d never find at a fast-food joint or perhaps in the actual South. You need not drench it with the spicy honey that comes on the side, but if you do, you’ll reap the rewards.
I should also note that the smoky bacon-braised greens here are more Wolfgang Puck than Paula Deen. The kitchen eschews traditional collards for kale, but the dish’s effect as the meal’s palate cleanser is the same, if not better.
This brings me to the fried chicken itself, which isn’t greasy, loaded with salt nor overly caked with breading. This is what a grandmother in a housedress would make if you asked her to replicate the Popeye’s recipe. However, my impression of the chicken on this visit coincided with the temperature at which it was served: lukewarm. And it was because of its tepidness that I started to question whether I’d been preprogrammed by Popeye’s to prefer greasier, saltier, crispier chicken more than these home-style birds. I haven’t decided one way or the other yet, but I am happily willing to go back to Buttermilk until I do, especially before Adams decides he’s priced his chicken meals too low.
Plus, the sides are still gems, and the coconut cake for dessert is as fluffy as cotton. Also, the deviled eggs here, crowned with house-pickled jalapeño, are unbelievably great—reason enough for a visit to finally address that chicken and egg question once and for all. The answer: Who cares?! Have both!
Buttermilk Fried Chicken, 238 W. Chapman Ave., Ste. 100, Orange, (714) 941-9124; buttermilkfc.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 5-9:30 p.m. Meals start at $9.95. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.