June 17 2016 02:42 PM

Richard Blais’ fast casual eatery gives Little Italy the bird

Señor Croque
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

    There was a part of me that didn't want to like The Crack Shack (2266 Kettner Blvd.) in Little Italy, Richard Blais' fast casual paean to the glories of (a) chicken and (b) commerce. Part of it was the name that seemed to trade on the popularity of other local and national eateries. Part of it was the fact I didn't love fried chicken enough to look forward to multiple dives into the deep end. No, I didn't want to like The Crack Shack. But I do.

    Rewind two years. Blais' Juniper & Ivy was San Diego's hottest restaurant opening of the year, winning local awards. When Blais, business partner Michael Rosen and Executive Chef Jon Sloan revealed plans for a fast casual eatery celebrating everything chicken, they promised Crack Shack would bring "the quality of J&I to a fun, outdoor 'coop.'" I was dubious.

    But I clearly hadn't tasted the fried chicken oysters yet. Chicken oysters are nearly every chef's favorite part of the bird. Two small, oyster-shaped pieces of dark meat sitting on either side of a whole chicken's backbone, they have the flavor of thighs with tenderness beyond breasts. The Crack Shack brines its chicken oysters in pickle juice before frying them perfectly—crispy on the outside and creamy inside—and offering them with a wedge of Meyer lemon and a mustard seed tartar sauce. It is simple perfection.

    Deviled eggs seem so very Mad Men, at one level, but are so satisfying at another. Offered in three flavors—chicken salad, "Baja" and kimchi—the latter was the most creative. Chicken sate with peanut sauce, on the other hand, was more interesting to look at than taste. Southeast Asian grilled street food is not what this place is about.

    Fried chicken, however, is. And the Señor Croque sandwich may be its best expression. A take on a breakfast sandwich, it is a fried chicken breast slathered with melted cheddar, along with bacon and a fried egg, all in a miso-maple buttered brioche bun. It hits all the notes: crispy, smoky, salty with a hint of sweetness in the butter.

    The Firebird sandwich was less successful. The fried thigh was tasty, no doubt. But on two trips the sandwich was over-sauced with the ranch dressing powerless to balance the flavor profile.

    Two Crack Shack takes on grilled chicken work well. The G-bird is a classic grilled sandwich with shishito pepper relish taking it up a notch. The California dip takes the classic French dip sandwich to the Californias—both alta and Baja—hinting at both a California burrito and pollo asado, plunging the entire affair into a heady posole broth. It is one of the place's most creative dishes.

    So much of the early attention on The Crack Shack was about Blais, "careful sourcing" and the trappings of our Celebrity Chef culture. Ignore all that. Engaged on its own terms The Crack Shack is not difficult to like, even for those of us who may not have wanted to do so. Enjoy the place for what it is, not whose it is.

    Deviled eggs
    Photo by Michael A. Gardiner


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