Note: Since this review, there have been kitchen staffing changes. 12/05/2017
Here’s an idea: Open a poultry-focused restaurant in a town once known as “The Kingdom of 10,000,000 White Leghorns. Seems like a pretty solid idea when you’re smack dab in the heart of the former Egg Capital of the World, where the chick incubator was created a century ago and a poultry pharmacy once treated ailing hens.
Adding to Petaluma’s feathered history is Chicken Pharm, an eatery that pays homage to the deliciousness of a perfectly spatchcocked chicken, and fried chicken, popcorn chicken, grilled chicken and chicken wings. But its the spatchcocked chicken we’re, well, crowing about.
What’s spatchcocking? Think of it as a roast chicken without much backbone. Literally split open and laid flat, the spatchcock technique is also known as brick or butterflied chicken, exposing the bird to more even heat and making for super crispy skin. Plus, it’s just more fun to say spatchcock, especially around chefs like Adam Mali, a Petaluman heading up the Patio Group hospitality company’s new kitchen.
Once a top toque at SF’s swanky Mandarin Oriental, Mali says the last thing his hometown needed was another fine dining establishment. Instead, he put some local, comfort food twists on the San Diego restaurant group’s first NorCal establishment. So, rather than practicing his culinary tweezer skills, Mali now wears a tee-shirt and an apron while frying chicken, cooking cowboy beans and baking chocolate chip cookies.
Simple isn’t always so simple, he says. “Making cornbread, seems easy, but it isn’t always,” says Mali during a busy Sunday brunch. Nor is making coleslaw that isn’t too soupy, or too mayonnaise-y, or too vinegar-y, and he’s worked on that for a long while.
That’s what elevates Mali’s meals. Fried chicken is fried chicken, but the side dishes (cheddar cornbread, Rancho Gordo beans with Black Pig bacon and just a hint of fennel) and bold flavorings (Korean gojichang and kimchee) bring the heart to the Pharm.
Which isn’t to say that Mali’s buttermilk fried chicken, which is a menu staple, isn’t excellent. But so are about four other comparable versions of chicken waffles or fried chicken sandwiches within a four block radius. We’ve eaten a lot of fried chicken in Petaluma lately, and it’s popular because, hey, who doesn’t like fried chicken? Our stayed crispy even after hours in our fridge when we gave it a late-night taste test again. Fried chicken, however, isn’t exactly a requirement for graduating from the Cordon Bleu.
Speaking to that, Chicken Pharm’s non-chicken options aren’t a menu afterthought. Mali has made it a mission to get his Fallon Hills Ranch burger right, using a range of cuts for a hearty tomato jam-topped beauty. Simpler eaters will like the griddled pb&j with whole grain bread and a side of Clover milk. Vegetarians can get into roasted cauliflower “wings”, clever salads and beer-battered pickle chips. Need a nip with that? Full bar, beer, wine and bottomless mimosas at brunch.
With a family-friend vibe and excellent brunch menu, Chicken Pharm is a great addition to Chickaluma. Come to roost at the former Tuttle Drug store (hence the Pharm moniker), Adam Mali’s menu features comforting roast chicken, spectacular side dishes and plenty of local flavor.
Best Bets at Chicken Pharm
Crispy Roasted Cauliflower “Wings”, $11: I’ve never gotten the whole “dip transport” excuse for using a gristly chicken wing to spoon blue cheese into your face. Spoons actually taste better. So I say ‘where have you been all my life?’ to crispy cauliflower as a transport for Marshall Farms honey sriracha sauce. Way better than a spoon.
Kimchicken, $12: The whole fried chicken paradigm needs disruption, and this is how you do it. Loaded with spicy gojichang sauce, pungent kimchi inside a sweet Hawaiian roll it’s a sweet heat treat.
Cage-free kale, $10: This kale is definintely free range, with shaved carrots, hazelnuts, Bellwether Carmody and a eye-popping turmeric citrus vinaigrette.
Spatchcocked Roasted Chicken, $11/$21: Half a bird is enough for two, but for a family, go all the way. Thyme and sage perfume this roasted bird beautifully presented in a skillet.
Fallon Hills Ranch Beef Burger, $13: Thick and juicy, this patty is “whole cow”, meaning it blends different cuts of meat, not just sirloin (and not offal). An 80-20 fat ratio gives it plenty of moistness, cooked medium rare with tomato jam, caramelized onions and a brioche bun. Top 10 burger for me.
Baked Rancho Gordo Beans with Black Pig Bacon, $8: Yes, there is a lot of namedropping going on in this humble cowboy dish, but these two purveyors also happen to be two of the best in the biz. It also happens to one of my favorite bean dishes, with ketchup and tomatoes (mom-style), plus molasses, brown sugar and a hint of fennel.
Petaluma Creamery White Cheddar Mac N’ Cheese, $8: My only caution on this one is to parents, because this version actually tastes delicious, though your kids may disagree. White cheddar brings a some uptown funk to an otherwise suburban blend of cheese and macaroni.
Cheddar cornbread ($6): Yes, if only for the whipped orange mascarpone butter.
Petaluma Slaw, $5: Almost an umami quality, which means not too sweet, not to salty, not too sour, not too creamy. Just right.
Chicken Feed Ice Cream Sandwich, $8: Chocolate chip cookie, Three Twins caramel ice cream, homemade caramel corn, happiness.
Crack of Dawn, $12 (brunch only): Grits are the thing here. They’re surrounded by over-easy eggs, grilled chicken sausage and roasted new potatoes. But the grits, with plenty of butter and thyme are Southern comforting.
If you go…
Brunch Gold: The spot is ultra-family friendly and good for large groups, with massive oak tables, several side rooms and a seasonal patio.
Bringing it Home: Family fried chicken meals (or spatchcocked chicken) are available for pick-up, serving four with two sides, a salad and dessert for $47, making it a wings-down winner for nights when no one wants to cook.
Chicken Pharm: 132 Keller St., Petaluma, 707-543-1278 (for pick-up orders), chickenpharm.com. Open 11a.m. to 9p.m. Monday, Thursday; until 10p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday 9a.m. to 9p.m., brunch served until 2p.m. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.