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Chicken, chicken or chicken?

by Brian Clarey

Very few solitary carnivores eat animals larger than themselves – tigers can do it; Tasmanian devils, too.

But without hunting in a pack, using trickery or brandishing sophisticated weaponry, we humans probably wouldn’t be able to bring down anything bigger than a good-sized wild pig.

So for a human meal chicken makes sense, anthropologically speaking. That may be the reason that chicken exists in some form on nearly every menu in every restaurant in the Triad. Or it could be that chicken, when prepared with competence, is juicy and delicious.

Chicken made sense to John Lightner, as well, when he opened the first Hobbes Chicken Fingers in St. Peters, Mo. almost five years ago.

It was near enough to the University of Missouri in St. Louis and a few smaller satellite colleges that he could bank on steady streams of students to keep his fryer sizzling, his register ringing.

The menu was as simple as can be: chicken fingers, crinkle-cut fries, cole slaw, toast, sauce. That’s it.

To ensure quality, he ordered his chicken from a small supplier outside of Charlotte.

You can thank the spike in petroleum prices for the newest Hobbes Chicken Fingers, now in its third week of business on Greensboro’s Tate Street.

“As gas and food prices came up,” he says from behind the counter, “our natural choice is to go where the product is.”

He looked at several other locales in the Old North State – Chapel Hill, Boone, Asheville, Raleigh – before settling in this spot, nestled between UNCG and Greensboro College, perhaps the city’s epicenter for fast, cheap and tasty eats.

The bad thing about such a simple menu is that if you don’t like chicken fingers, you are, as they say, SOL. The good thing is that Lightner and crew are to chicken fingers, slaw and sauce as George Washington Carver was to peanuts. They tinker, test and tweak the recipes and preparation techniques for best taste.

An effect of the move down South, Lightner says, was the need to alter the cole slaw recipe which had sufficed in St. Louis for years.

“We made it sweeter,” he says. “We could have gone with barbecue slaw or Carolina sweet, that’s what we call it. We’re still not done with it, but less people are subbing it out [for another side item], so we’re getting there.”

The sauce, too, is an original creation, and Lightner will not divulge the ingredients. Both creamy and spicy, like a remoulade, it holds equally well with the chicken and the fries. The mild heat can be amped up with a few shakes of Frank’s Red Hot sauce.

I also dig the toast, which is actually a thick slice of soft Italian bread, buttered and done up on the griddle.

And the chicken fingers are as fine an example of the form as I have ever tasted – tender and juicy, to be sure, and not cooked within an inch of their lives, as can sometimes happen at other joints when a line cook forgets he’s dropped them.

“But wait,” I can hear some of you saying now, “I didn’t know chickens had fingers.”

Well, the name is not a literally descriptive one, like Buffalo wings or salmon balls.

For these fingers, Lightner uses only the chicken tenderloin, that dense and succulent adjunct to the breast that I have also heard called the “oysters” of the chicken.

The tenderloins are treated to a batter before their bath in the fryer. He’s similarly vague on the oil he uses, but he assures me it’s without trans-fats.

He does reveal what he says is the most significant thing about his chicken: It is delivered fresh each day from Charlotte within a day or so of butchering, and the tenderloins will never see the inside of a freezer.

“That’s our biggest secret,” he says.

The first few weeks of business, he says, have been promising.

“We love the colleges,” he says.

Anthropologically speaking, he’s positioned himself for success.

To comment on this story e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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