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In Love With: Chicken Salad

02.19.2008 by André Natta · → 3 Comments

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There is no entry for “Best Chicken Salad” in my trusty Menu of Menus, which leaves the title to be hotly disputed in all corners of our fair city. The arguments come down in some fairly defined quadrants: traditional celery vs. nouveau; with nuts vs. smooth; chicken chunks vs. pulled meat; dried fruit vs. those who shudder at the mention of raisins. What cannot be disputed is that every chicken salad eater in the Birmingham Metro area has their favorite recipe, and all other concoctions aren’t worth a crosswise sniff.

Since coming to Birmingham four short years ago, I’ve learned to love chicken salad, a foodstuff I’d previously relegated to Ladies Who Lunch. My perfect chicken salad is meaty and slightly creamy, without being saturated with mayonnaise. And as for my personal taste, though I have nothing against raisins and their ilk, fruit does not belong in chicken salad. The sweetness is too distracting. When making sandwiches, the bread should stand up strongly to the salad, and a light hand with lettuce and tomatoes adds the perfect texture. That said, the chicken salad recipes I find myself In Love With in Birmingham are: Ottavia’s Chicken Salad at Nabeel’s in Homewood, the excellent sandwich at Java and Jams on 20th Street downtown, and Rojo’s basil chicken salad.

When you order the Ottavia’s Chicken Salad Plate at Nabeel’s, what you get is essentially the Platonic Ideal of Chicken Salad. It is unbelievably simple: pulled chicken breast in a light creamy base. No veggies, no chunks, no nothing. The purity of the chicken and cream flavors is remarkable. If you add salt and pepper, you’ll end up tasting that rather than what you ordered. I recommend getting the Greek salad and chicken salad combo, since the strong taste of the feta cheese and dressing make a nice contrast to the simplicity of the chicken.

I only discovered Java and Jams shortly before I left my job downtown, so my love affair with their chicken salad sandwich was short lived. John Maske, the owner, hand-pulls roasted chicken every morning to make the simple concoction. Again, the focus here is the simplicity of the dish, just chicken, tangy-rich mayonnaise base, and some subtle spices to give it some depth. But layer that mixture on toasted wheat bread with a little tomato and lettuce, and what you have is a fresh lunchtime break that doesn’t leave you feeling weighted down at all. With a guilty smile, I’ll declare it even better when you put the potato chips inside the sandwich for a super salty crunch.

But anyone who knows me well will know that my standing order at Rojo, on Highland Avenue, is their Basil Chicken Salad Sandwich. It is by far the meatiest of the three recipes, and-whether you order the sandwich or the salad-served by a generous hand. The recipe is again simple, but bolstered by a strong helping of fresh cut basil in the mix. The basil brings a summery, herbal freshness to the traditional salad, cut by just the right amount of creamy goodness. Just wash that down with a cold beer on Rojo’s patio, and you’ll see that maybe the Ladies Who Lunch had the right idea after all…

Nabeel’s, 1706 Oxmoor Road; Java and Jams, 321 20th Street North, 321-JAVA; Rojo, 2921 Highland Avenue South.

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3 comments
Carolyn
Carolyn

The best chicken salad I think is O'Carr's in Homewood. the recipe is a secret but I think the secret ingredient is pate`. But they won't say ! And they have the best FRESH fruit. Really it is awesome.

Susanne
Susanne

Try Iz Too chicken salad on Rocky Ridge Road in Vestavia Hills.

Mark
Mark

Thanks for the 411! I'm going to check out the first 2 recc.