First Look: Hop's Chicken and H&F Burger

Checking out chef Linton Hopkins' Ponce City Market eateries

It was 4 a.m. and I stood in front of my refrigerator. My cat Patricia, who had been sleeping on my chest, was whining. "It's all for a good cause," I explained. "I have an important experiment to conduct."

I reached in the refrigerator and took out a fried chicken breast from Hop's Chicken, one of the first stalls to open in the long-awaited Ponce City Market food hall, a space so enormous that children need to be leashed lest they wander away, only to be found three days later sucking on a chicken bone.

My 4 a.m. experiment was to test the edibility of Hop's fried chicken after refrigeration. Every Southerner knows that no matter how crispy and juicy chicken is when it's pulled from the deep-fryer or skillet, it's not a total success unless it tastes good as a leftover. In fact, many prefer their fried chicken cold or at room temperature. Just ask anybody who's ever been to dinner on the grounds of a backwoods Baptist church.

"Whoa!" I told Patricia. The breast had retained its near-perfection when served hot. The flour coating did not slide too easily from the flesh, a major problem with most cold chicken. Of course, it wasn't as crispy overall but it wasn't a bit soggy. The buttermilk-marinated meat retained its juiciness and, best of all, the layers of flavor did not seem compromised. I love that the chicken has a spicy crescendo, the cayenne pepper slowly stinging the mouth but never reaching an outright burn.

The stall has been opened by Linton Hopkins and his wife, Gina, whose two restaurants — Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch Public House — have been at the forefront of culinary trends in our city. H&F led the way in so-called nose-to-tail dining and exotic cocktails. Restaurant Eugene has been a leader in the Southern farm-to-table cooking that Hopkins grew up eating. The couple also operates H&F Bread Company, another example of their perfectionism. Just about everything they do works.

Hopkins has also opened H&F Burger next to his new chicken joint. It features a good bit of interior bar seating (while Hop's is takeout only, for home or a table in the food hall). The burger has an oft-told history. A few years back, H&F began cooking 24 off-the-menu double-cheeseburgers at 10 p.m. They were meant to satisfy the ravenous appetites of the city's restaurant workers, still wired after the night shift. Word spread. A cult emerged. There was never a riot, because the burger was finally put on the regular menu. Hopkins also opened a stand at Turner Field. The burger is a brilliant example of the way establishing pent-up demand can produce a golden fetish.

Naturally, being me, I never understood the fetishistic zeal. I think it has to do with foodie community as much as flavor. The burger — wherever it's served — features two thick, griddled patties of freshly ground chuck and brisket. It's layered with bread-and-butter pickles, some red onions, and Kraft American cheese, all in a lightly griddled pan de mie bun whose diameter precisely matches that of the patties. The dribbling-fatty creation is cooked just short of medium-rare and has a slight char. Is it delicious? Oh yeah, and pretty, too. I love that it's not crapped-up with lettuce and tomato. Still, I'd be very reluctant to call it the best burger I've ever had. Friends felt likewise during both my visits.

We did love the twice-fried fries, which you are free to ruin by dipping in an appropriately sugary house-made ketchup. You can also get a Spotted Trotter hot dog, a single-patty burger, a veggie burger, or a salad. Shakes and floats are available. Expect to spend a good bit of money. It's red meat, after all.

On the other hand, you'll be shocked by the low prices at Hop's Chicken. You can get half a chicken for $9 with a couple of buttermilk rolls. A lone wing is $1; a breast is $4. If my 4 a.m. experiment wasn't enough to convince you, believe me, the chicken is terrific when it comes out of the pick-up window. It's not as spicy as you'll find at Gus's in Peachtree Center but it's crisper and juicier. And, yes, it even beats the overly breaded Popeye's spicy chicken I love.

Unfortunately, sides haven't measured up to the chicken. Mac and cheese was creamy but almost watery, with no touch of crust. I was blindsided by the succotash, which was served cold in a vinegary dressing. Coleslaw was totally ordinary. The buttermilk rolls look like the Colonnade's glossy yeast rolls, but were mouth-dryingly overly doughy, room-temperature, and — dare I say it? — tasted kind of stale. The biggest disappointment was the biscuits. I ordered a chicken biscuit and it simply could not stand up to the big chunk of white meat's heft and slight oiliness. Eaten alone, the biscuits are paradoxically appealing for their relative thinness. They crumble just right. They don't even scream for butter.

Hop's offers six sauces for dousing and dipping. I like the remoulade-like frim-fram sauce (jazz fans know the name's origin) and the black-pepper gravy. Buttermilk ranch, honey mustard, and barbecue sauces are also available, along with straight hot sauce.

The service at both venues was irregular, but you don't expect it to be perfect so early on. The deluge of customers clearly had the Hop's staff on edge, prompting a friend to say they needed a week's training at the Varsity. I found them all very personable and I think they'll do great.

So, back to 4 a.m. and my experiment. My intention was to take only a few bites of the chicken, but, of course, I devoured the entire breast. Patricia kept whining and I threw her a chunk, which she batted around and carried off. I got back in bed and fell quickly asleep. As soon as I woke up, Patricia jumped on the bed and presented me with the chicken I'd thrown her way. I was actually tempted to eat it. Yeah, it's that good.

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