Restaurant Reviews

We Can't Sugar Coat the Bad News About Chicken Scratch

Dallas has too much fried chicken.

2016’s Southern comfort food bubble has brought our city an ever-bigger bucket of fried chicken restaurants. Omar Flores, of the highbrow Casa Rubia, opened Whistle Britches to mixed reviews. The family behind Black-Eyed Pea opened Street’s Fine Chicken, which is, indeed, pretty damn fine. Rapscallion’s hot chicken became a cult hit. The food news pages are filled with Southern-fried openings like the brand-new Grayson Social and Quincy's Chicken Shack.

And there are still old favorites around, like Babe’s, Rudy’s or Bubba’s Cooks Country, not to mention the birds served up at Korean places like Number One Plus Chicken. This is, simply, too much. Some day soon, fried chicken will go out of style and the less successful businesses will be left behind holding vats of old grease and thickly breaded memories.

Take Chicken Scratch. It opened in early 2012 with the backing of chef Tim Byres, whose Smoke is an excellent almost-upscale barbecue spot, and who brought inspired eccentricity to The Theodore. It boasts an enormous patio space with bright lights, big picnic tables and live music on weekends. Families love the kid-friendly atmosphere. Chicken Scratch has pulled in a number of accolades, too; the website CultureMap recently named it one of Dallas’ top 100 restaurants.

But the food is just not good.

Let’s start with a side dish, but one that epitomizes the kitchen’s struggles: macaroni and cheese. We all love good mac and cheese. And, probably, we all agree on a few basic truths about good mac: It should be served hot, it should be savory rather than sweet and it should be gooey with a rich slathering of delicious cheese.

Chicken Scratch violates all these rules. Its mac and cheese (like all sides, a small serving is $2, large $4) is served lukewarm and cools off curiously rapidly. The addition of hominy isn’t a ticket to Southern comfort; instead, it adds starch without flavor, and gives the mac a dry, crumbly texture. As a result, there’s no ooziness, no eye-popping strings of cheese dangling from forks. The sauce is hardly worth calling a sauce.

And, when I ordered the mac and cheese as a side with my fried dark-meat plate ($6 for two pieces), it got an unfortunate, clashing sweet kick from honey, too. Honey? Yes, raw “oregano and vinegar honey” is drizzled over the finished chicken and splashed, unintentionally, across the sides too. In theory, maybe an interesting idea. After all, chicken and waffles are delicious together, and sweet-spicy sauces can be great. But in practice, the oregano is undetectable, the vinegar is hard to trace and there’s a reason most people don’t use raw honey for chicken and waffles.

On the fried chicken, the batter is good: crisp, crunchy, well-spiced, if a bit starchy. That meat tends to be ultra-juicy, too. But it all tastes like the world’s weirdest dessert food.

My chicken tenders (three for $5) came on a tray splattered with honey, but luckily it had all missed the meat. The tenders are plenty good; if the batter didn’t fall off so much, they’d be perfect, especially with Buffalo sauce. On the other hand, rotisserie chicken (half-bird for $10) arrived with dry breast meat and a gritty, peppery rub that doesn’t really improve on Kroger’s. The thigh was juicier, but not exactly exciting.

Opt for the pretty-good biscuits ($2) and perfectly fine mashed potatoes over the limp, pointless “sweet and salty” french fries, which continue Chicken Scratch’s weird trend of putting sweet things on foods that shouldn’t have them. Also sweet: collard greens. Yes, the veggie usually inextricably tied to the word “bitter” has been made safe for the sugar-craving masses.

The best meal is quite a surprise: the tamales ($5). They’re big, they’re moist and the spices are good. Shredded chicken means no risk of overcooking, and there’s no honey in sight. The tamale plate was the only one I cleaned.

Besides tamales, Chicken Scratch’s other standout food is pickled vegetables. The side cups of pickled jalapeños or pickled mixed veggies (each $1), and the plain old pickles, are seasoned well and bring some high-voltage flavor to a restaurant that needs it. Just don’t let the pickles get squirted with honey. For a bearable meal here, either stick to tenders or spring for a tamale plate with a great big pile of pickled veggie sides.

All this disappointment comes as a surprise to me, since the team behind Chicken Scratch is responsible for some really good restaurants. At Smoke, the creative tweaks to barbecue tradition result in great food. But something is going wrong down the street, whether it’s a willingness to coast on the patio’s popularity, misguided recipes, an undertrained kitchen or general complacency. Chicken Scratch needs to rethink its fries, embrace bitter greens, hone the rotisserie skills and kill off the oregano vinegar honey, or serve it on the side.

Oh, and the mac and cheese needs help. A restaurant that serves bad macaroni is doomed.

Chicken Scratch, 2303 Pittman St., 214-749-1112, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday through Saturday.