An hour before the hotly anticipated Crack Shack restaurant opened for business Nov. 11, a line of eager customers stretched almost a full city block through Little Italy . Customers patiently waited nearly two hours for food, and by 7 that night, the chicken-and-egg fast-casual restaurant sold out all of the food that was expected to last five days.
Talk about great expectations. But is The Crack Shack all it's cracked up to be? The venue is beautiful, the staff friendly, the service quick and the signature product, fried chicken, delicious. But there's still work to be done.
The Crack Shack is the latest venture for owner Mike Rosen and chef Richard Blais, whose first collaboration just next door, Juniper & Ivy, is one of San Diego's hottest restaurants. While J&I offers fine dining, The Crack Shack is anything but: a breakfast-all-day open-air eatery with concrete picnic-table seating, a bocce court and a full-service outdoor bar. But The Crack Shack shares the same made-from-scratch, artisanal approach as J&I. During two visits during The Crack Shack's first week, I felt that some items still need tweaking but the essentials are strong.
Blais and his chef team, headed by Jon Sloan, spent three months perfecting the restaurant's fried chicken recipe, and it's a winner. Juicy, flavorful Jidori chicken (organic, free-range, California-raised) is dredged in a tongue-tickling secret seasoning (do I taste curry or chili powder?) and fried to a not-too-thick, not-too-crunchy finish.
The Crack Shack
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays. 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Closed Mondays.
Where: 2266 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy ($7 valet parking)
Phone: (619) 795-3299
A tray of five pieces ($15) with a side of the house-baked airy, buttery mini-biscuits (six for $5) makes a delicious and satisfying meal for two. A 10-piece chicken order is $28. Those aren't KFC prices, but there's no comparison in flavor and freshness. The chicken is served with a basket of six house-made sauces (the Baja hot sauce, curry mustard and buttermilk ranch are my favorites), but the poultry is so flavorful and succulent, it doesn't need any help.
Fried chicken breasts (from Mary's and Shelton farms) are the heart of many of the other items on the Crack Shack menu, which ranges in price from $8 to $14 for most a la carte entrees.
One of the best dishes is the chicken oysters (creamy pearls of meat from the chicken's back) brined in pickle juice, fried and served with a twist of Meyer lemon ($8 for a 3/4-pound order). Unfortunately missing from my order was the promised mustard seed tartar sauce.
For breakfast sandwich lovers, the $11 Senor Croque is worth coming back for. A fat and juicy fried chicken breast topped with bacon, fried egg, cheddar and miso-maple butter is served on a butter-toasted brioche bun. Also good to the last bite is the crispy Chicken Burger topped with a spicy shishito pepper relish ($11). And a whole table can feast on a $5, 1-pound order of the craveable Schmaltz Fries (decadently fried in chicken fat).
On the downside, I wasn't as enthused with the California Dip, a bolillo panini that combines a french-fry-laden California burrito with a French dip ($12). There wasn't enough chicken in my sandwich, and the multiple ingredients (including posole dipping broth) didn't marry in my mouth. The deviled eggs ($6 for six) are just OK, and the chicken croquettes (gourmet nuggets) had more air inside than chicken ($7 for six). The chicken lollipops have a nice flavor, especially with the spicy gremolata, but you don't get a ton of meat for the price (six winglets for $9).
The Crack Shack's dessert menu also needs a boost. The soft-serve ice creams ($4 to $5 for a cone or cup) are pleasant but not memorable. The smoked vanilla flavor is interesting, but the chocolate mole tastes like gingerbread, and I'd welcome more creative toppings than jimmys, nuts and crisped rice. Now if that soft-serve were twirled on top of a warm fruit cobbler, I'd be first in that long line.