Last April, Andrea Leslie was nearly ready to debut her chicken restaurant -- slated to be the west coast's first franchise of Washington, D.C.-based The Chickery -- in Palo Alto's Barron Park neighborhood. Having checked off key milestones including training in Toronto, equipping the kitchen and hiring her opening crew, the Gilroy resident was feeling confident and eager. Then came the bombshell: Leslie received a legal notice informing her of The Chickery's overnight demise. She was ordered to sever all ties with the chain by a chef who asserted exclusive rights to the concept.
"I was shocked," Leslie said. "Even though I had the option to walk away, I quickly decided that I would completely overhaul the operation and make it my own."
Leslie got to work on a radical revamp, fine-tuning original recipes and creating a restaurant that offered full-service quality in a quick-service format. Less than three months later, Fowl Play Roadside Chicken took flight.
Fowl Play is situated on El Camino Real, about a mile south of Page Mill Road. Its sparely decorated, diminutive dining room has space for only two tables and eight stools, which are lined up along two intersecting windows facing the street and the parking lot. (Two outdoor picnic benches boost seating capacity in warmer months.) The small footprint hasn't yet hindered the mostly takeout eatery, though standing-room only status could come as more diners discover, as I did, the restaurant's enticing menu.
I found both of Fowl Play's core offerings -- tangerine and sage-roasted rotisserie chicken and crispy, buttermilk-fried, all-white chicken -- to be juicy, flavorful and generously portioned. Choosing which variety to order is a matter of preference, not quality. Notably, the hand-dipped and battered fried chicken has a light, non-greasy texture. I didn't experience a fried chicken "hangover" -- no need for a post-meal nap or fistful of antacids after indulging.
While both styles of bird can be ordered no-frills style from the "Rotisserie," "Southern Fried" and "Feast" sections of the menu, Fowl Play also incorporates its signature item into an inventive variety of salads, sandwiches and sliders.
The first-rate Asian chicken salad ($10.50) featured a crunchy bed of fresh romaine lettuce topped with a heaping serving of roasted chicken, red cabbage, edamame, peanuts and more, tossed in a tangy sesame vinaigrette dressing. The "squawky yaki bowl" ($10.50) -- be prepared for the menu's fondness for poultry puns -- was another substantial, healthy option. The bowl's jasmine rice was suitably soft and sticky. Fresh vegetables and roasted chicken topped with a deep, rich teriyaki sauce completed the savory dish.
From the "Sammies" section, I opted for "the ultimate" ($9.50), a hearty combination of lightly breaded fried chicken, choice of cheese, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and mayonnaise on a corn-dusted bun. The sandwich hit all the right notes except for the paltry slice of pepper jack. The aptly named "hot mess" ($9.50) was a towering fried chicken sandwich stacked with crispy onion rings, lettuce, tomato and Roquefort cheese, all drizzled with spicy buffalo sauce and creamy Roquefort dressing. This bold-flavored behemoth is the restaurant's top seller, according to Leslie.
Standout sides included the crisp, non-oily tater tots and baked beans with bacon drenched in a sweet sautee of molasses and brown sugar (both $3.25 small/$4.95 large).
I was elated with my order of elote ($3.25), Mexican street corn with mayonnaise, Parmesan and zingy Tajin seasoning. I was less enamored with the "cordon bleu mac 'n' cheese" ($3.25 small/$4.95 large), a bland melange of chicken, ham, bacon, melted swiss and cheddar cheeses, soggy noodles and a dusting of cornbread crumb topping that was too granulated to make an impression.
From the out-of-the-box dessert menu, which includes churros and a house-made waffle cone with seasonal pie filling, I chose loukoumades ($4.95), warm Greek donuts topped with honey and pecans. The exquisite pastries were surprisingly light and airy. Try to save room for these doughy delights.
Fowl Play's service is genuine, attentive and seems, at times, like a one-woman show. During each of my visits, Leslie guided me and other patrons through the menu, highlighted her favorites and checked in multiple times. Other staff members, while helpful and courteous, could not match the owner's buoyant energy.
The restaurant takes a novel and heartwarming approach to community outreach. The Fowl Play Bucks program invites customers to leave donations for less-privileged diners in a jar by the ordering counter. The cash is then converted to paper "bucks" and pinned to a half wall beneath the register. Guests needing assistance with their bill can redeem available bucks toward the cost of their meal.
Though we'll never know how The Chickery would have fared in Palo Alto, I'm guessing that locals would prefer a homegrown concept with a wholesome menu and a personal touch. The ideal candidate? I suspect Fowl Play.
Fowl Play Roadside Chicken
3850 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Private lot and street
Happy hour: N/A
Outdoor dining: Yes
Noise level: Quiet
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent