Bradrick Cooper circles the small, packed dining room at Coop's West Texas BBQ with a basket of meat, tongs and a smile; touching every table, he talks with guests about their food, thanks them for visiting, and offers a sample of whatever hot-off-the-smoker delight he's got handy.
It's a family affair at Cooper's five-year strong Lemon Grove digs, with his sister-in-law, Cassondra, and his daughter, Tara, both working behind the counter full time to keep up with the demand of patrons who travel near and far for the warm embrace of his soul food.
But Coop's only seats 26, so when the property about 20 paces across the parking lot - a former taco shop - became available, he jumped at the opportunity to start planning Da Chicken Coop, a fry-house extension of the original restaurant.
With outdoor seating for 40-50 people, items like fried chicken, fish, livers and gizzards will wind up on po' boys, with crunchy sides to match like onion rings, fries and chicken "chips" - aka thick and super crisp strips of fried chicken skin, best doused in the tabletop vinegar-based hot sauce. Plus, more seating means more room to gorge on barbecue and fried chicken. Really, this strip mall is slated to become one of East County's tastiest.
Fret not. Even though Da Chicken Coop doesn't open until sometime in January, diners can still score a tasty preview at Cooper's barbecue joint in the meantime. "Like" Coop's West Texas BBQ on Facebook for updates about when the man himself gets behind the fryer to turn out legs, wings and thighs to succulent perfection.
The meat is treated with a dry rub versus brining, and tender, juicy meat is anything but compromised, while the simple coating is salty, crisp and has hints of rosemary across the bird's golden skin. But most importantly, the chicken tastes as homemade as it gets.
Cooper said he grew up on fried chicken.
"It was a staple, because it was the cheapest meat to buy; so we ate plenty of it, and never thought much of it, other than that it was good," he said with a chuckle. "But when I announced plans for Da Chicken Coop, everyone got really excited, so that was really cool to see."
Besides enticing the masses with his swoon-worthy grub in person and via social media, Cooper's double win at the sold out Fried Chicken Challenge - a blind tasting competition organized by the Facebook Group Eating and Drinking in San Diego, featuring a judges panel and people's choice award - has put his fried bird in the spotlight of nearly 6,500 active online members of the site who are chomping at the bit for Da Coop to finally open.
"I didn't really think about what it would be like going up against chefs," Cooper said about the competition that included Logan Mitchell (The Cellar Door); Rich Sweeney (Waypoint Public); Aldo Negrete (Rare Form); Jimmy Tessier (Local Habit/Blush); and Karen Blair (Small Bar), who took second place and will put her "Loser Fried Chicken" - a buttermilk, lemon zest and rosemary rendition - on her menu starting in mid-January.
"I don't consider myself a chef," Cooper said, "just someone who can cook pretty good from what he learned from his mother, grandmother and father. So I said, I'm just gonna cook like I would at home, which is what we're going to do here," he said motioning to Da Chicken Coop's eventual home.
Cooper said the influx of business in the wake of his win has been hard to keep up with in addition to his usual, kick ass BBQ. He wishes he could open sooner.
"It's dragging - you gotta go through a bunch of hoops and loops out here," he said about opening a restaurant. "So when I heard The Crack Shack opened, I was like, damn! I need to get my place opened.
"I want to go try it for myself - I like good food whether it's mine or someone else's - if someone's doing the same thing and it's good, it's good. I don't hate on people."
Coop's West Texas BBQ has undoubtedly become a destination restaurant, if not a trailblazer for more legit restaurants in the same genre to follow, like Cooper's new current favorite, Grand Ole BBQ y Asado, where he loves the smoked turkey, a central Texas specialty.
"I took this place," he said motioning to Coop's, "because it's right in the middle. What we call the hood is to the south of us, and we're right here in Lemon Grove by the freeway. So I felt like people wouldn't be intimidated to eat here." With da incoming Chicken Coop, even though it might not be the most picturesque lunching destination in town, who cares - this strip mall's gonna have it all.
Coop's West Texas BBQ is at 2625 Lemon Grove Ave., (619) 589-0478 or coopsbbq.com
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouthwatering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.