First there were hipster tacos, now there's hipster fried chicken.
Sissy's Southern Kitchen & Bar recently opened on Dallas' trendy Henderson Avenue, serving its upscale take on the bucket of breaded bird, and now there's Chicken Scratch on the West Dallas/north Oak Cliff border, just a hop, skip, and short fixed-gear bike ride from the Belmont Hotel.
The first impression of Chicken Scratch -- which is where the popular bar/hangout Jack's Backyard used to be -- is that it's more postmodern parks-and-rec than restaurant. Sharing the grounds with a bar called The Foundry, Chicken Scratch is fronted by a large, open area that is part abandoned factory, part European beer garden, part Texas icehouse and part family back yard.
Repurposed shipping containers provide a utilitarian aesthetic while also providing shaded areas for some of the outdoor tables. During the day and early evening, children seem to be running all over the place, darting among the fenced-off cactus gardens, while moms and dads inhabit the benches, digging into chicken, collard greens and mac 'n' cheese, and washing it all down with a few cold ones.
To the left, in the larger building, is The Foundry, which, even though it has only been open a couple months, joins the short list as one of the coolest bars in town. The industrial yet friendly interior, the amiable vibe, the plentiful outdoor seating, the roster of Texas beers and the food -- like the delectable beef carnitas ($6) and seasoned fries ($3) -- make it a certain rival to Lee Harvey's as a prime chill spot. When bands start being booked on the large outdoor stage just to the right of The Foundry's front door, things are really going to take off.
Chicken Scratch is a bit more hit and miss. As conceived by Chris Zielke, Christopher Jeffers and Tim Byres -- who, among them, are responsible for some of Oak Cliff's most acclaimed eateries, including Smoke and Bolsa -- Chicken Scratch is another new-generation take on American comfort food where everything is locally sourced and prepared to order.
At the heart of the concept is chicken, available in fried or rotisserie styles. The fried chicken ($5.50 for a white meat/quarter order; $4.50 for dark meat/quarter; $8.50 half chicken; $14 whole chicken) is the best thing on the menu. Fried in a traditional cast-iron skillet as opposed to a deep-fryer, the chicken isn't greasy to the touch and the breading, not too thick as to overwhelm the tender meat underneath, has a sweetness that's addictive.
The pecan-wood-fired rotisserie chicken is less striking, though it does possess a nice, smoky flavor.
For any vegetarians or vegans who might find themselves reluctantly dragged to Chicken Scratch, the restaurant does offer some options, the best of which may be the quinoa and chunky vegetables salad ($6), a healthful blend of pickled veggies (peppers, olives, cauliflower) and greens ladled with spoonfuls of quinoa.
Once you move beyond the main dishes, that's when the problems arise. First, you have to pay for sides individually ($3 for a small, $5 for large) and this approach means your simple chicken dinner is going to be more expensive than you might like. Even the too crumbly buttermilk biscuit is going to run you a buck. Still, everything here is made from scratch, so perhaps you should expect to pay a bit more.
Second, some of the sides -- like the elbow mac and cheese and the mashed potatoes -- are very ordinary. During our visit, neither the pasta nor the mashed potatoes were served hot -- nor did they have much flavor. The sweet-and-salty fries -- russett-potato fries sprinkled with a mixture of celery salt and sugar -- are a better way to go. Or, try the tender collard greens, which still had a nice, slight crunch to them, if you want something a bit healthier. (Still, be warned that the small side orders are quite small.)
Chicken Scratch doesn't offer much for dessert except for house-made ice pops in such flavors as piña colada, mango, strawberry, lime, watermelon and cantaloupe ($2). The watermelon proved a refreshing way to top off a meal, but it was so fresh that the seeds were still present.
Despite Chicken Scratch's shortcomings, it's hard to get too angry. Sure, you can get cheaper chicken -- with sides and a biscuit thrown in -- at any mini-mall chicken joint. And the hour-plus waits that are said to greet diners on weekend nights might give you pause.
But on a nice spring day or warm summer night, Chicken Scratch trumps all of its competition with a rustic, family-friendly conviviality that's more down-home Texas than Uptown Dallas. And that's priceless.