Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Chasing a chicken in the hills of New York
ONEONTA, N.Y. – There is a classic flashing pink neon sign outside Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Q displaying a chef wielding a hatchet chasing after a chicken.
This sign, as well as the jam-packed parking lot, give me the immediate impression the food is good and fresh in this roadside restaurant in south-central New York.
I take a seat at the curving Formica lunch counter the color of an orange Creamsickle and begin to take in the kitschy ambiance. The counter has swiveling wooden captains chairs. Images of large chickens are stamped across the brown, red and white wallpaper surrounding the room. There are more chicken doodads hanging on the wall facing the counter.
More than 20 people are standing in line for one of the 300 seats in the adjoining dining room, and nearly as many wait in the lobby to place take-home orders. A large moose head hangs above the dining room entrance alongside other animal trophies that add a strange hunting lodge feel to this 1970s-style restaurant that could well have been the backdrop for a Brady Bunch episode.
“Is this where everyone in town comes on a Friday night?” I say to the waitress, after she drops before me a paper placemat with descriptions and images of the different barn types in the region.
“It’s pretty much where everyone comes most nights,” she responds.
I’m directed here while on a trip to the area by a bubbly coworker at the Observer-Reporter, Chistie Campbell, who grew up in nearby Delhi, N.Y.
“They’re famous for their sauce,” she says.
The city, pronounced oh knee yawn ta, is home to a little more than 13,000 people, most of whom vote Republican. It supposedly takes its name from an Indian phrase for “place of open rocks,” a reference to an outcropping of tablerocks.
Among Brooks’ most-famous customers is Hillary Clinton, who stopped here in 1999 during her successful campaign for New York’s U.S. senator. But Oneontians were not especially nice to her when she arrived at the business at 5560 State Route 7 to a large crowd of hecklers.
My waitress, though, has a pleasant smile as she takes my order for a half-dozen wings with mild sauce. Then I watch waitresses deliver platefuls of grilled chicken breasts and spareribs to chubby diners. This is much more interesting than studying those illustrations and descriptions of such barns as the New England connecting or Dutch Gambrel.
My wings arrive in short order. The sauce they drip doesn’t taste any different than your average red-hot Buffalo sauce, but the chicken is especially plump and moist.
It isn’t until I place a cell phone call from the counter to Christie that she tells me the best juice in the house is the yellow chicken variety.
I purchase her a bottle of the stuff while paying the $4.99 tab for the wings, and continue on my journey south to Scranton, Pa. She promises to prepare some chicken in this yellow magic sauce for the newsroom. We’ll let you know how it tastes.