I’ve had the privilege and challenge of operating businesses in uptown Waterloo for over a decade. I’ve seen the hay days and the, “hey stop all the construction” days. The common thread throughout my experiences as an uptown business owner has been the unwavering sense of community.
To me, uptown Waterloo has always felt like a safe place, safe to wander and enjoy. Thanks a confluence of people, culture and events, this has become a safe place to do business. Some may be confused by that statement for sure, as years of construction and a growing bar scene give fuel to that fire. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t question it myself. I even joined the conversation at the BIA to help protect what uptown means to me, and to help shape the future.
Communities are built and kept together at the table; breaking bread together is undeniably the fastest way to get folks to come together and stay together. As a chef, I’ve been lucky enough to be present to so many great moments in our uptown’s recent past. Like a backstage pass, I have used my apron to get me close to the action as often as possible — in many cases, playing host to some pretty special moments. From illegal dinners on King Street celebrating the resiliency of uptown, to pig roasts in the alley
A few weeks ago, I was the recipient of good feels and a wonderful, spontaneous community moment. We run a sandwich special at one of the restaurants — a “grab a go, closed when we sell out” kind of lunch service. There are two choices: vegetarian or not.
We have developed a loyal clientele and often have quite a line up. Over the decade doing this, we’ve watched the line evolve — strangers become friends, couples become families, and Friday lunch becomes tradition.
Watching a community come together over a mediocre sandwich, I’ve always maintained that the success of this lunch does not lie between the bun like so many great things do, but rather in the sense of community it has fostered. This lineup forces closeness, discussing the menu, reflecting on that fried chicken, the weather, construction, the music.
A few weeks ago our bread delivery was late. When I’d usually have 100 sandwiches wrapped and ready to go, I had zero, and a lineup of 25 people, waiting.
The buns “rolled in” at 11:35 a.m. The line was deeper, I was frazzled and people are hungry. Struggling to assemble sandwiches fast enough with hungry onlookers watching, in my head, the sky was falling. With nobody to help, things seemed bleak.
There’s an expression in kitchens that over the years I’ve butchered it into: “every crisis is just another opportunity for a hero to emerge.” Alnoor was my hero that day. Alnoor, aka Al, from Loop Clothing has been coming in for sandwiches from day one, often grabbing a few for his team.
Al was first in line that day and awkwardly let folks jump past him, mentioning he was in no rush and politely letting people get theirs first. That is, until he noticed me drowning.
Al jumped in and said: “hey man, I worked at Harvey’s, I can wrap sandwiches.”
Before I knew it, he started wrapping sandwiches and restoring order.
“I got two fried chickens who needs ‘em, hot sammys let’s go,” he yelled, like he’d done it 100 times before.
After a couple minutes, I sheepishly thanked him attempting to send him on his way. Wise enough to see I’m still weeded, he stayed another 20 minutes cranking out sandwiches.
It was amazing, maybe not to everyone, but it definitely was for me. I should mention that Al and I have had our differences. Being neighbours isn’t always apple pies cooling in the window. Sometimes it’s shitty stuff too like “get off my lawn.”
Admittedly, I can be a grumpy prick. We have had those moments, but when I needed help, Al didn’t even let me ask, he jumped in and rolled up his sleeves.
I like to think that’s what uptown Waterloo is all about, and if that’s not true anymore, then we need to take a nod from Al and roll our sleeves up, help our neighbours, help our neighbourhood and recreate that sense of community we all came here for.
Fried chicken sandwiches have become my calling card. My place in this community seems to be making the people in it fatter one sammy at a time. Check my recipe below for perfect fried chicken sandwiches!
Nick Benninger is a local chef and restaurant owner.
Fried Chicken Sandwiches with garlic aioli, fermented pickles and creamy Stone Crock coleslaw
Ok so this is only part of a recipe. You have to buy the coleslaw, pickles, mayo and find a nice kaiser bun all on your own to put it on. You may not want to use my delivery source, as they can be late sometimes. But the fried chicken is the crux of the biscuit as they say, so master that and the rest of the sandwich falls into place.
My only other advice, and to be honest I learned it getting subs one night with a young apprentice and I quote: “gimme more sauce than sub sir!” In a nutshell, don’t skimp on the aioli! Aioli is a fancy word for garlic mayo, so no need to get the wisk out here and make your own mayonnaise, simply buy some mayo from the store and start from there.
1 cup mayonnaise
3 cloves garlic minced
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Simply mix these items together and marvel at the amazing sauce you just made. This stuff is great to dip veggies and fries in and so much more, so make a decent batch and keep it around a few days.
6 x chicken thighs boneless and skinless
1/3 cup salt
2 liters ice cold water
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Start with the brine, the chicken needs to sit in this overnight so get started ahead of time. It’s super easy, mix all the ingredients ensuring the salt dissolves in the water and pour it over the chicken, set it in the fridge overnight.
Next get your oil hot, we want enough oil to have the chicken mostly submerged. We will flip it halfway through, so no need for total submersion, it’s a waste of oil. Use a heavy bottomed pot so the temperature is easily controlled, and something deep enough you wont get a lot of splashing or overflow, that’s dangerous.
We want a temperature of 350* C, but a window of 325-350 will work, stovetop deep frying can be a challenge to maintain temperature. As you wait for the oil to heat up, dredge your chicken. For best results, go directly from the brine to the flour, the extra water on the chicken will help make a thicker more feathery crust, and that’s the magic.
Once the thighs are covered in flour, let them sit in the dredge a bit to really soak in some future crust — 2-3 minutes will do. Once the oil is hot, shake the chicken so any excess flour falls off and fry. It will take about 10-12 minutes total to cook them. Turn them a couple times carefully but don’t over handle them, you will only hurt the crust by doing so.
Once they are cooked through, remove them from the oil to a paper towel or draining rack and salt right away, let them rest for a few minutes and assemble you sandwiches.
A pro tip from my wife: put the aioli down on the bottom layer of the bun. That will help protect the bun from the moisture in the chicken and pickles.
Warning: once you make these at home, your life may never be the same. The smell of fried chicken can drift far. You may end up creating your own lineups!