So, has anyone heard about any good chicken sandwiches lately?
Let me rewind for a bit. This week the Internet went insane over chicken sandwiches, something I rarely order anywhere. When there’s a burger available, I never give the chicken sandwich a second look. At fast food places, even if I’m not in the mood for a burger, I’m more likely to order the fish sandwich than the chicken sandwich! Even when I go to a fried chicken joint, I’ll usually get a couple of crispy fried thighs, rather than a sandwich. Too often, the classic fried chicken sandwich contains a dry chicken breast, or worse yet, a dry tender or two. I’ve been burned by dry, bland white meat too often, and don’t get me started ranting about dry, bland, boring-ass Thanksgiving turkeys. I always prefer dark meat, and thighs usually hide my favorite morsels of meat on the entire chicken: the oysters, tucked away under a bone, two little perfect bites per bird.
But people are losing their damn minds over this chicken sandwich, which gave me a serious case of the FOMO.* I had to venture forth to see what the hype was about, and so I could blog about it and get some external validation before everyone moves onto the next foodie fad. Wait, did I just write that?
Well, to none of my regular readers’ surprise, I ordered two different chicken sandwiches: spicy and extra-spicy. And I’m happy to report they were the best damn chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had! But they didn’t come from that chain. Nope. And not that chain either. They came from a beloved local restaurant that just happens to be located in a butcher shop. Not that one; the other one!
Swine & Sons (https://swineandsons.com/) started out as the third restaurant in James and Julie Petrakis’ locally-grown empire, following their flagship Winter Park gastropub The Ravenous Pig and their upscale Southern restaurant Cask & Larder. With Chefs Rhys and Alexia Gawlak in charge, Swine & Sons opened in a small space next door to the old Cask & Larder location on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, and I made sure my wife and I were there on the very first day they opened for business. We were some of their first customers through the door on Day One, and they had a good thing going from the onset. It was always meant as a more casual restaurant compared to the others, a quick-service place with sandwiches, house-cured charcuterie, and lots of prepared takeout options. And despite having limited seating and parking, it became a hit, like the Petrakis’ other establishments.
But the only constant is change. In recent years, Cask & Larder moved to the Southwest Airlines terminal at Orlando International Airport, and The Ravenous Pig moved into the space Cask & Larder vacated on Fairbanks, which is much nicer and larger than the old Ravenous Pig location, with more parking. The Gawlaks bought Swine & Sons from the Petrakises, and in March 2019, they moved across the street, into The Local Butcher & Market, an upscale full-service butcher shop. (Da Kine Poke, one of Orlando’s best poke places, also has a counter location inside The Local Butcher.) There are still tables to enjoy the Gawlaks’ delicious food in there, don’t worry. And luckily, there are a lot more parking spaces! Just keep in mind that it closes at 4:00 PM every day, so you’d have to be a real early bird to have dinner there.
Anyway, Swine & Sons is one of the only Orlando restaurants I know of that serves Nashville-style hot chicken, which I was first introduced to at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year. After the chicken is marinated (often in seasoned buttermilk), breaded or battered, and fried, it is covered in a spice paste that’s heavy on the cayenne pepper, so every surface is spicy. It was amazing, and very different from the popular new fast food spicy chicken sandwich where any heat comes from a spicy mayo-based sauce. At Hattie B’s, I ordered a medium thigh and a hot thigh. They were crispy and crunchy and set my mouth ablaze, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
(To avoid any confusion, this photo is from Hattie B’s in Nashville, just in case the cup and the above paragraph didn’t give it away. That’s medium on the left and hot on the right, and the hot was HOT.)
I tried the Nashville hot chicken at Cooper’s Hawk when I reviewed it earlier this year, and even though I liked that restaurant quite a bit, the hot chicken wasn’t that hot or that crunchy. So my quest continued, and I’m so glad that the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 led me to Swine & Sons in search of a truly singular spicy chicken sandwich experience.
In fact, maybe with all the chicken sandwich hype and debating, Swine & Sons recently debuted a hotter hot chicken sandwich. Their current menu showed the classic version, referred to as the “Party,” and the newer, hotter model called the “Rager.” The very patient woman working the counter told me they use the same spice blend, but the Rager contains three times the cayenne pepper. They use Bell & Evans all-natural chicken breasts, and she explained that they first brine them, then they smoke them, and then they fry them. I was already on board even before she mentioned smoking, but that would have pushed me over the edge. I love any smoked foods — meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, salt and pepper, you name it. I was ready for a life-changing flavor sensation, so of course I ordered one of each ($11 per sandwich), intending to eat half the Party and half the Rager there and save the other halves for later.
Both of the sandwiches were served on identical white sandwich rolls, with plenty of sliced pickles and little dipping cups of Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, a mayo-based sauce I have come to really like with my chicken. I’m usually not a pickle person, but I’ve been trying to develop more of an appreciation for pickles, and these were great. Definitely some of the best pickles I’ve ever tried. Surely they were house-made. The chicken breasts with their crunchy breading and oily, spice-laden exterior coating were balanced perfectly with the soft roll and the crispy pickles (not overly sour or “dilly”). I left the cool, creamy white sauce on the side for dipping random bites, lest it overpower the other flavors or cut the heat too much. I would have preferred a soft, rich buttery brioche bun for these sandwiches, which would have both contrasted and cut the heat more than the plain white roll, but it still worked very well.
These chicken sandwiches were CRON-CHY! Each bite had a satisfying crunch that is missing from too much fried chicken. Under the breading, they were also juicy and moist. Even beloved fried chicken establishments have let me down too often — even places I’ve given good reviews to in the past. But these were everything you wish fried chicken sandwiches could be in terms of texture and consistency.
And what of the heat, you ask? The Party had a pleasant heat that would certainly be too much for my in-laws, my parents, and my wife, but anyone who enjoys spicy food will be fine with it. I didn’t know what to expect from the Rager, but I’ve been pushing my limits with spicy food lately, maybe trying to feel more alive in this scary and unknowable world. My eyes were watering, and I had to blow my nose more than once, but my body reacts like that whenever I eat anything spicy, so those weren’t new and unfamiliar reactions to this heat. Despite all that, I was expecting it to be hotter, to maybe push into a place of unpleasant heat, but it was fine. It was better than fine; it was awesome. And through the heat, you could taste the smoky flavor. They didn’t clash or overpower each other — smoke and fire burning together in crackling harmony.
Rager (see it through my tears!)
I definitely like the oil-based spice rub on Nashville-style hot chicken compared to most other kinds of spicy chicken. Don’t get me started on typical sports bar buffalo wings, which never do anything for me. It might be the funkiness of the vinegar-based hot sauce, but those wings are often too crunchy, whether they are breaded or not, and they’re simultaneously dry and greasy. And even though I couldn’t begin to identify the spices in the Swine & Sons chicken sandwiches (aside from the obvious cayenne pepper), at least they don’t have to increase the heat to ludicrous levels for macho bragging rights, with ridiculous names like “Atomic Hellfire,” “Habanero Apocalypse,” and “Ass-Blaster 5000.”
There was a slight sweetness emerging from the heat in both of these sandwiches, making me wonder if there was some sugar in the spice blend. I loved it. They were exactly what I wanted, exactly what I had been craving and chasing since hitting Hattie B’s in April 2018. The smoky flavor made it through, so there were a lot of unique tastes and textures going on at once. I have to say I preferred both of these chicken sandwiches to the two thighs I had back in Nashville. Were they the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had? In a week where people are getting passionate about chicken sandwiches, I’m going to do the same and say YES, yes they were. As I write this review, far too late on a work night, I am so excited that I still have the other halves in my fridge, waiting for me… maybe even taunting me.
While I was there, I also ordered Swine & Sons’ macaroni and cheese, which I hadn’t had in several years. It was $4 for a decent-sized side order, and it was very rich. The cheeses (cheddar and fontina) were melty and the pasta was al dente, so I was more than content. There was also a nice crumb topping made from cheddar-chive biscuit crumbs. A lot of places bake their mac and cheese so the whole thing comes out dry, sacrificing that nice meltiness for overly-crispy edges and noodles you can barely chew anymore, but that was definitely not the case here.
I’ve ordered other sandwiches at Swine & Sons on my handful of previous visits over the years, including a good Southern-inspired take on the classic Cuban sandwich. I think I even had a house-made hot dog there once, although it has been so long, I don’t even remember how they served it. But today, in my first visit to their new location inside The Local Butcher & Market, Swine & Sons showed me the great heights a fried chicken sandwich could reach in the right hands, from the right kitchen. It was hot, but all that heat was pure flavor, not just burning, tingling pain and regret. It was crunchy, but not so hard that I felt like I was going to break a tooth. It wasn’t dry, and it sure wasn’t bland. It was a chicken sandwich all others should aspire to be.
I don’t know if they could serve a non-spicy version of the sandwich for the some who don’t like it hot, but right now I’m convinced Swine & Sons can do anything. And while it is more expensive than the fast food chicken sandwiches making headlines and stirring up strong feelings, you get what you pay for. I think these were dramatically, exponentially better than any chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had, and I hope my readers will feel the heat sooner rather than later. The Gawlaks are like culinary royalty in Winter Park and Orlando, and this place isn’t exactly a secret. But despite all that, you shouldn’t have to worry about long lines and sandwiches selling out, as transcendent as they are.
*Fear Of Missing Out.
I’m so ashamed.