If you can recall (after all those Zoom meetings in which you’ve had to stare earnestly at a computer screen for hours), we used to argue about who served the best fast-food fried chicken sandwich, thinking somehow this was a matter of national urgency until we were actually confronted with one. Last summer, Popeyes inadvertently gave us a glimpse into our future, with long, slow-moving lines and product shortages that stretched out for weeks. When we could finally taste one, the chain’s crispy chicken sandwich delighted our palates and tortured the competition, which either trumpeted the superiority of their own sandwiches or quickly MacGyvered (maybe that should be McGyvered?) a sad-sack impersonation.
The owners of Roaming Rooster watched this battle from the sidelines until an angel with lots of followers tweeted out words that would place the restaurant on the front lines of the fried chicken sandwich wars, at least in Washington. “While Popeyes is cool and all,” wrote an artist named Bri Hall under the Twitter handle of La Hara, “if you live in the DMV area you should check out Roaming Rooster in DC. It’s Black owned, and the founder Mike is Ethiopian born. He grew the family business from a food truck and has always been kind.”
It’s not an understatement to say that a single tweet — and the stories that followed it — changed the lives of the three owners of Roaming Rooster. Their business went up more than 100 percent, co-founder Michael Habtemariam tells me. They had to hire more staff, work longer hours and basically rearrange their lives to meet the demand.
“That was a lot of work,” Habtemariam says. “We had no life. Like, we were working almost 16 hours a day to keep up.”
It took a pandemic to slow Roaming Rooster’s momentum. The owners — including Michael’s brother Biniam Habtemariam and his brother’s wife, Hareg Mesfin — have kept their four food trucks off the streets, save for occasional trips to hospitals where they feed front-line workers. They’ve turned their storefront on Bladensburg Road NE into a carryout. The entrance has been transformed into a counter, with a Plexiglas-like window between customers and staff to keep parties on both sides of the partition safe from an invisible invader.
Sales are down about 30 percent since the Mayor Bowser ordered all restaurants to close their dining rooms in mid-March, Michael says. But here’s the important detail amid the bad news: The community has continued to support Roaming Rooster, despite the risks involved in venturing outside the home for takeout. I’d like to think this is because the owners took a risk on the neighborhood, by opening a storefront in an area that is woefully lacking in quality restaurants.
If you drive north or south on Bladensburg Road from Roaming Rooster, you won’t find much to attract the curiosity hounds who used to explore (and may once again) the region for the best that the DMV has to eat. The road is mostly littered with chains: Subway, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC and that Popeyes just up the way. Cheap, convenient and sometimes tasty food but not the type you purchase with any sense of pride.
At $8.50 and $9 per preparation, the sandwiches at Roaming Rooster can be twice the price, or more, of those at the chains, the multinationals that benefit from economies of scale. But you know what you get at Roaming Rooster that you can’t get at Mickey D’s or Popeyes or KFC? The dignity that comes from supporting a food supply chain that treats humans and chickens with respect. Though the big boys keep improving their chicken sourcing, Roaming Rooster’s owners go for the gold standard: They buy only free-range, grain-fed birds raised without antibiotics or hormones. When I think about the price I’ve paid for organic chicken breasts at my nearby Whole Foods, I’m sort of shocked at how little the sandwiches cost here.
But you get one helluva story at Roaming Rooster, too. As the estimable Bri Hall noted, Michael (and his brother Biniam) were born in Ethiopia, a country that does not have a tradition of deep-fried birds. (Doro wat, yes, but Southern fried chicken, no.) Their father, a pilot for the Ethiopian air force, sought asylum in Canada more than two decades ago, and he brought his five children with him. They learned about the wide world of cuisine while living in Ottawa, including good-and-greasy American food, such as the fried chicken popularized by a white-haired gentleman in a cream-colored suit and black Western bow tie.
By the time both brothers had moved to the states — and Biniam had married Mesfin — they decided to launch a food truck. Their first one sold shawarma, a dish they discovered in Ottawa with its sizable Lebanese community. They eventually settled on fried chicken but not before consulting YouTube videos, cooking shows and cookbooks for tips, including recipes from Marcus Samuelsson, another Ethiopian native who was displaced from his homeland when young.
The owners would spend more than a year perfecting their recipe. Their chicken breasts are brined in buttermilk before a single dredge in flour seasoned with garlic powder, black pepper, oregano and cayenne pepper. Fried in canola oil, the silky breast meat provides only minimal resistance once you break the seal on its coating. This cutlet serves as the centerpiece for a handful of sandwiches, all of them good to excellent. I’m particularly fond of the Buffalo and classic fried chicken preparations (with a housemade slaw), both of which use vinegar to fine effect. You can order hand-cut, skin-on fries with your sandwich for an extra $2.50, though by the time you pull them from the to-go box, they’re more like potato spaghetti than fries.
Roaming Rooster doesn’t pull its punches with its Nashville hot chicken sandwich. One afternoon, I placed an order for a “hot” preparation, and after a single bite, I could feel the mushroom cloud forming on my tongue. I began gulping milk in a madcap attempt to deactivate the bomb. Once calm was restored, I suddenly realized the connection between Roaming Rooster and the owners’ Ethiopian heritage: the searing, unapologetic use of chile peppers and powders.
We may be separated from one another during the pandemic, but with these chicken sandwiches, you can experience how the boundaries between us disappear in a single bite.
If you go
3176 Bladensburg Rd NE, 202-507-8734; roamingroosterdc.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $2 to $9 for all items on the menu.