Rhea's friend chicken sandwich. Photo by Mark Rabine

Julian, 20-something, and Mark, 70-something, will be hunting for the Mission’s best fried chicken sandwich. If you have suggestions, write a comment — or, if you prefer, send an e-mail to Julian at julian.mark@missionlocal.com.

Let’s take a moment for some words from actor Alan Arkin as the grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine: “Every night it’s the fuckin’ chicken! Holy God Almighty! Is it possible just for once we can get something to eat around here … that’s not the goddamn fuckin’ chicken?!”

That’s how I felt when eating this sandwich: there was just a little too much goddamn fuckin’ chicken.

The chicken in this sandwich — an evil-looking nebula of dense, almost tumor-like fried batter — overflowed from the bun’s perimeter, requiring me to eat nearly half the meal before getting to the sandwich itself: there were, like, four pieces in there!

It would be one thing if the chicken itself was enjoyable, and it was — at first. My initial bite into one of the wedges that jutted out of the sandwich was crispy, juicy, a bit spicy. But after that, I felt like I was eating only batter, which wasn’t terribly flavorful and definitely burnt in areas. It was tiring.

Yet, after all the work of getting to the sandwich itself — which seemed like a long run of the gauntlet — Rhea’s premier menu item began to come together. The chicken’s slight spiciness mixed well with the coleslaw, itself a blend of peach and jalapeno, recalling a favorite of many Bay Area fried chicken sandwich pilgrims, Oakland’s Bakesale Betty.

And the marginalia, you ask? The pickle was only an eighth of a full pickle, and it didn’t so much snap but bend under the full pressure of my jaws. The mixed greens — a must-choose side, only because something is needed to cleanse one’s esophagus after that siege of fried batter — was the experience’s only saving grace.

“Easy for you to say,” Polly said. “You’ve lived here all your life and stayed under the radar. No one points at you.”
“Sometimes small children point at my butt,” Aunt Rhea said. “But that’s just on account of all the fried chicken.” 
— Kathy Hepinstall, The Book of Polly

Well, yes, Julian, you do get a week’s worth of chicken in a Rhea’s fried chicken sandwich (no relation to Aunt Rhea above). You have a problem with that? If it’s too much for you, or Little Miss Sunshine, try a doggie bag.

Or donate the leftovers to the weekly Mission Local stew for starving reporters.

I wonder, living as we do, in an age of hyper-inequality, if it may be a bit insensitive to complain about relative abundance.

Rhea’s Cafe, at  2200 Bryant St. (at 20th), may not be the first place you think of when you go out into the Mission with a craving for excellence in a fried chicken sandwich.

If it hadn’t been for some readers’ comments (thanks guys), I would have mistaken its minimalist decor for an old-school Mission taqueria.

(Was it one, once? Anyone know?)

Julian, I heard you initially swooned when you saw the size of the sandwich placed before you. Remember, and this is important for a young reporter to keep in mind when pursuing a story: size means little.

What counts is performance. Had you grown up during the Vietnam War, I wouldn’t have to explain this.

Stunned by the size, it seems you couldn’t get past the batter.  A light but convincing crunch, savory with a hint of heat. Tasty, right? But overwhelming? No way. Rhea’s batter doesn’t overwhelm;  it complements and engages the meat, a combination of white and dark, juicy and flavorful.

Rhea’s batter presents no physical or psychological obstacle to surmount to get to the chicken.

And then the apple slaw (where did you get “peach” from?). It is added, as tradition, on top of the chicken, but also on the bottom. Is it an impossible mess? No. They don’t overdo the slaw at Rhea’s; with super-light mayo, it’s more a garnish than a side dish crammed into the bun (which is toasted).

No weird slaw sauce to clean up when you’re finished.

And then, if you recall, there is the question of time.

At Monk’s Kettle, we learned that time was baked into every fried chicken sandwich, so one must eat with, as Steve Kerr would say, purpose and pace. If too much time elapses, crispy batter turns to mush, dealing a serious blow to the structure of the sandwich and thus your eating experience. At least, that was my theory based on the Monk’s Kettle sandwich and Henri Bergson’s thoughts on the nature of time.

My brother, who accompanied me to Rhea’s, looked at me quizzically but was too hungry to ask what the hell I was talking about. We dug in.

You can only get so deep into a Rhea’s fried chicken sandwich without having to come up for air. I made it to the outer ring of the bun.

I took a breath. My brother commented. Favorably. We ate the side greens. Ate the pickles (dill, not butter). Time flowed on and the batter kept its crunch over the duration.

Now, that’s impressive!

In my book, Rhea’s rises to the top of the heap.

Are there any downsides? One, for sure.

Although his reaction was typically extreme, Julian’s observation was essentially correct: from a personal, political and public health point of view,  that’s one big-ass sandwich.

Next stop: West of the Pecos

The fried chicken showdown begins at the Salumeria,   Dec. 7, 2017

The friend chicken showdown takes a detour to Wes Burger, Dec. 18, 2017

The fried chicken showdown goes to Monk’s Kettle, Jan. 4, 2018

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

Mark Rabine has lived in the Mission for over 40 years. "What a long strange trip it's been." He has maintained our Covid tracker through most of the pandemic, taking some breaks with his search for the Mission's best fried-chicken sandwich and now its best noodles. When the Warriors make the playoffs, he writes up his take on the games.

One reply on “The fried chicken showdown visits Rhea’s Cafe”

  1. I for one have been really enjoying these fried chicken sandwich reviews. I love the combination of two different generational perspectives. This one is especially hilarious.

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