When I was a kid, probably around thirteen or so, my family had friends in North Carolina whom we would visit once a year during the summer. Growing up in Pittsburgh, North Carolina was something totally different at the time, yet not so much in terms of topography or urban planning. What really struck me was the cultural differences, specifically people's mannerisms and attitude, and the food. The touchstone event of my childhood experience in NC wasn't the beach, it was the annual stop at Bojangles Chicken and Biscuits on the ride home.
This restaurant chain would for decades embody everything I loved and hated about the south. For one thing, the chicken being served was spicy, and back in 1983 that was not to be found in the North. Wendy's was still pretty much pushing their hot and juicy hamburgers exclusively, and Popeye's was still getting started. This was an entirely new concept for all of us, and I immediately fell in love with the spicy breading used on Bojangles chicken. On my second or third visit I realized the spicy Chicken fillet served on a biscuit was the greatest breakfast I had ever eaten. The other thing I realized was that people in the South moved SLOW. Really SLOW. SLOW, like, even though I'm only thirteen years old, I just knew that there was something wrong with their definition of "fast food" I remember standing at the counter long enough to want to scream, followed by complaining while everyone else tried to enjoy their meal, and that's not my style at all. That said the meal was so good that I always insisted on stopping if a Bojangles appeared on the road anywhere near lunchtime.
My impression of the South divided by Bojangles equals delicious plus lethargic.
As of this writing it had been a full two decades since I'd been anywhere near a Bojangles. At one point there was one an hour or two from the 'Burgh, which I found on some road trip to someplace, but I didn't stop in, and it didn't last long in that location. This would have been in the early 90's, and I patiently waited for the company to establish another northern outpost, only to be disappointed and finally forget. Until last weekend, that is.
On my way down to Raleigh to demo Copic Markers and Canson Fanboy Paper for Jerry's Artarama, I saw one of those state issued road signs which indicate what amenities are available at the next exit, and there it was in all it's red and yellow glory, right next to tired old McDonald's and Burger King and Cracker Barrel, my childhood culinary launching point, "Bojangles" That's how I knew I was back in North Carolina, and as luck would have it, I needed gas. It turned out to be bad luck since I went in the wrong direction and, based on my most recent Bojangles sighting in the North combined with sighting a dilapidated, boarded up yellow eatery, deducted that there was, in fact, no Bojangles. Feeling a little let down, I fueled up and headed for the highway, and while building momentum on the entrance ramp, I spied the restaurant the road sign had indicated. Damn it! Not to worry, I now had confirmation that Bojangles was still in business, and I would soon see if the franchise could serve better than memory.
Indeed, my cousin's house (where I stayed) was no less than four blocks away from a location, so when Saturday morning rolled around there was no question as to where I was going for eats. Actually, it was more like Saturday afternoon, but I was kind of hung over, and so I skipped breakfast and ordered a two piece dinner combo. What I learned was, not only does Bojangles still taste better than any other fast food chicken, but it also helps to dispel the sluggishness of a night of drinking, much like any greasy food should.
Standing in line, I got the sense that I needed to order a meal, rather than a sandwich. This would give me a better idea of what made this place tick. Ordering a two piece and one side would reveal a lot more than any newfangled menu item and fries. Besides, I'm not a kid anymore and sometimes eating with a spork can be fun (Bojangles also help pioneer the noble "Spork") There in line I saw they offered Cajun pintos and dirty rice, and opted for the latter. As a kid there was no way I was trying beans and rice when a french fry would do, but the lessons learned from the spicy chicken fillet were not lost, and I had since come to enjoy Cajun and Soulfood cuisine. Unbelievably, the rice stood out as some of the best dirty rice I had ever tasted, and while still a northerner, I consider myself as one who has enough of an appreciation to be able to say such a thing. I know a fast food restaurant is going to cut corners, but whatever they're doing, I'm not complaining. The biscuit was flaky and buttery, and something my mother remembers as a stand out, but then again McDonald's wasn't serving biscuits in '83, so it's hard for me to say, other than they ARE tasty. Finally, the chicken (although I didn't eat in any particular order) Ah, the spicy chicken I had longed for.
The Previous evening, while catching up with Tom and Heather, I cautiously broached the subject of Bojangles, not sure how the greasy spoon would fly with two transplanted New Yorkers. They both chuckled and confirmed that it is indeed some decent junk, albeit more in terms of being "drunk" food. The next morning, with trepidation, I bit into Bojangles chicken for the first time as an adult and it was as if all the waiting, all the longing, had been worth it for that moment. There aren't many childhood memories that hold up as well as Bojangles, or maybe there's just something wrong with me. The breading was crispy and greasy in that unique pressure fried way that once could have been said about KFC (before people started finding brains in the thighs) Where the breading fell off red Cajun seasoning was revealed, the key ingredient in this genuine southern fried chicken recipe. Better still, real chicken, after years of giving up on the headless green mutants you get (ahem!) elsewhere. Not so much like fast food, Bojangles impressed me as being more akin to Pittsburgh's own Primanti Brothers, being the local eatery that does things it's own way and is rewarded by a loyal customer base. The stuff was so good I had to steer myself away from the counter and a second helping. The final touch in Bojangles menu of awesomeness? Sweet Tea. Looking at Wendy's or McDonald's, it becomes clear just how much influence Bojangles has had on the fast food industry, yet it remains firmly entrenched in the South. Spicy Chicken Sandwich, Mickey D's Sweet Tea, all garbage. Bojangles is the real deal and if staying put in NC means quality control is never compromised, well save me a seat, I'll be back on my next visit.
Oh, and those slower than Moses Southern folk behind the counter aren't quite gone, even if a steady influx of Yankees seems to have finally lit a fire under their collective ass. Although they still "have a minute" their congeniality more than makes up for it, especially when one's head feels like it's going to explode due to the previous nights recklessness.
All in all, a great experience, two days in a row, at Bojangles Chicken and Biscuits. A lot has changed in North Carolina, so it's good to see this institution holding steady and living up to unrealistic expectations. Next time I've promised my mom I'd bring back a box of biscuits. She'll have the final word on that subject, mine is that it's a good thing there isn't a Bojangles anywhere near me because I like the stuff entirely too much.