In Jacksonville, Chicken on the Fry
WHAT: Beach Road Chicken Dinners.
WHERE: Jacksonville, Fla., just across the St. Johns River from Alltel Stadium, site of Super Bowl XXXIX.
WHY GO: Patriots and Eagles supporters may come and go, but fried chicken will always have diehard fans.
At Beach Road Chicken Dinners, the biscuits are tall and light, the cream peas' recipe is held close, and the main attraction's so tasty that folks pay extra for a side order of its crumbs (93 cents).
Don't let the fact that Beach Road Chicken sits on Atlantic Boulevard -- not the parallel-running, latter-day Beach Boulevard -- get in your way. "We were on the road to get to the beach," says Ken Ferger, who manages the catering side of his wife Tena's business. "People referred to it as 'the beach road.' We'll get calls from customers who still say, 'I'm on Beach Boulevard. Where are you?' " Southern Living magazine readers have had no trouble finding the restaurant over the years, ranking its fare among the South's best fried chicken as recently as last fall.
The restaurant looks like a house that's been added to in stages, except that it's surrounded by asphalt lots on either side and out back. Sit in the main dining room, on the porch or close to the kitchen hallway -- it's all simple, plain and familiar, since 1939. On Sundays, the only day Beach Road is open for lunch and dinner, the lines form quickly out front and at the takeout window in the rear.
But those lines move, a feat Ferger attributes in part to the likes of Marjie Harrison and Gloria Bartley. They've been carrying family-style platters for more than four decades. They call you hon and get the unsweetened tea refills right. Beach Road's also never bothered with a liquor license, so customers tend to load up and roll out.
Some 500 dinners are served each Sunday -- that's 3,000 to 4,000 pieces of fried chicken, 25 to 30 gallons of cream peas and 1,000 or so biscuits cut by hand (with an aluminum can) that go so well with a slurpy pour from the honey pitcher on your table. To-go orders are packed in the same kind of deep, square cardboard boxes they always were.
The side dishes, naturally, aren't good for your daily carb intake. Each regular four-piece order of fried chicken ($6.39) comes with bowls of mashed potatoes, crinkle-cut French fries or rice (choice of one), plus gravy, coleslaw, three hot biscuits and a house original secret recipe: cream peas. Trust me, they taste better than they sound on paper. The exact ingredients of the dish -- big sweet peas bumping around in a smooth white sauce, served piping hot -- were first put to paper by the late Earl Majors, one of Beach Road's first owners.
The Fergers aren't talking any more than Majors is about how Beach Road chicken comes together, preferring to leave it at a simple "we've always done it that way."
This is fried chicken without a heavy, bready crust. Its batter is thin enough so that each piece has its own combination of crisped skin and crunch of non-peppery crust. Have a wing dinner, a white meat chicken dinner, a liver, gizzards or hearts dinner (what customers refer to as "the lizards and gizzards"), or wait 45 minutes for a truly tender baked chicken. It's all cooked consistently by a veteran kitchen crew.
Beach Road's menu is a little broader than it used to be, but not by much. Fried okra and fried squash have proved popular in the past 10 or 12 years. And the newer fried shrimp and fried fish entrees help round out what's called "The Feast" for two: four pieces of chicken, two pieces of fish, six shrimp and sides, all for $15.79.
-- Bonnie S. Benwick
Beach Road Chicken Dinners (4132 Atlantic Blvd., Jacksonville, Fla., 904- 398-7980) is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 4 p.m. till about 9 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to about 8:30 p.m. Takeout menu varies slightly. Eight-, 12-, 16- and 24-piece boxes to go with all the sides, from $12.78 to $25.56. Chicken-only and a la carte orders available.