Straight to the food, here: Barberton chicken is just chicken fried in lard. It’s got Serbian roots, and there’s no spice, no fancy sauce or tangy notes from brining liquid—just lard. The breading is crispy, a single brownish-reddish color that doesn’t have distinct ridges or any sort of noticeable terrain to it. Just a solid, fatty, dark brown mass. Soaked in animal fat, is somehow not totally greasy; the chicken is cooked until tender and juicy.
I’m at Hopocan Gardens on a post-Christmas fried chicken tour. I don’t remember how I first heard about Barberton chicken, but it was likely a late-night Googling of Midwestern specialties, desperately searching for my next gluttonous endeavor. Once you’ve tried the Garbage Plate, the St. Louis Slinger, and the Pittsburgh Salad, you’ve got a real demon that needs to be fed. Barberton, it turns out, is only an hour and a half drive from my hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania, so it was settled: I took the highway west to Hopocan, along with my father and brother.
The colorful chicken statue out front serves as a lighthouse: we’re here. I peek past the old wooden front desk to the kitchen, where I see rows and rows of fryers lined up like tanks. The French fries, I’ve deduced, go in the same deep fryer as the chicken, meaning those crispy hand-cut potatoes also taste like chicken and lard. I’ll bet I’d taste lard if I licked the wood paneling of this place.
Internet lore says Barberton chicken famously doesn’t use seasoning, but it’s obvious that Hopocan Gardens uses something, even though I can’t quite place it. My father, brother, and I each taste our piece of chicken at the same time like celebratory shots of Jameson. I bite into a dark meat chicken thigh, and my mouth explodes with fat. We all look at each other and say what the fuck? with our eyes. We’ve never had anything quite like this, and in this moment I’m wondering if this is the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.
I’ve had chicken fried in oil, and I’ve had chicken drowned in cayenne pepper, but I’ve never had chicken this saturated with animal fat. Deep, smoky flavors zoom straight to my heart, and every so often I have to stand up to collect myself. This is like eating cookie dough—I shouldn’t be doing it, but I can’t stop. My mind is also blown because lard, that wonderful secret ingredient used in Southern cooking to yield flaky biscuits and tender pie crusts, has been used here in Ohio by first and second generation Serbian immigrants for almost 100 years, right under my nose. Every bite is a crispy, fat-filled punch in the face that only lard can induce. Combine that with the richness of dark meat and the lack of seasoning, and it’s clear these chicken houses all have the same goal: They want you to taste the fat.
This hyper-regional food is the product of Serbian immigrants in the early 20th century, part of the first wave of Eastern Europeans who came to the United States in search of factory jobs. There are four Serbian fried chicken restaurants in Barberton: Hopocan Gardens, Belgrade Gardens, White House, and Village Inn. Belgrade was the first in 1933, then the others followed. Belgrade looks like a church complex or a house, with an unnecessarily gigantic parking lot for this gloomy railroad town. In fact, everything’s got a giant parking lot even though the population here doesn’t crack 30,000. It’s a Midwestern diner joint: cushy booths, stained ceiling tiles, and ranch-smeared plates. “From a different era” doesn’t exactly describe Belgrade. “Dying breed” might be more apt.
The phrase “Barberton chicken” implies more technique than actual recipe; it’s an aesthetic both in its creation and the way it’s served. Author Ronald Koltnow wrote extensively about the subject in his book, Barberton Fried Chicken: An Ohio Original. It’s not a cookbook by any means, but he’s got some good insights into how the chicken is made. First, it gets breaded in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs then chilled overnight, which Kotlow says “has the same effect as brining. It yields juicier meat.” Next, there’s the aforementioned lard, which is the driving force in the flavor department. The lack of seasoning is interesting, because while the dish at Belgrade could be improved with salt, it’s just not. There’s a focus on simplicity, a laser sight on that deeply fatty flavor.
Thirdly, the chicken is always served with coleslaw and “hot sauce.” The hot sauce is seemingly just a mild stuffed pepper filling: stewed tomatoes, onions, rice, and, depending on where you are, Tabasco. It’s infuriating that it’s called hot sauce—rice isn’t hot sauce, what on earth?—but that’s exactly the type of quirky and backwards thing you’d expect in eastern Ohio.
Every restaurant in Barberton does its coleslaw, fries, hot sauce, and chicken a little differently. I wasn’t thrilled with the chicken at Belgrade, but its coleslaw was on point, shredded deli-slicer thin and with a proper amount of vinegar and sugar. Its hot sauce had some noticeable Tabasco, and that was pleasant, but the chicken just didn’t have any flavor to latch onto. Hopocan, meanwhile, absolutely kills it. Even though the coleslaw and hot sauce are blander here, the chicken and fries are incredibly addictive. The crust is juicier and it adheres more to the meat. I’m guessing that the cooks use a different breading, perhaps air dry it longer in the fridge, and then fry it at a different temperature. I would travel a great distance to go back to Hopocan Gardens, and I wonder how long I’ll be able to do that.
In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal, Koltnow explains, “It’s a hard business model to maintain. The core clientele is older. They don’t draw enough young people. Part of my goal in writing [Barberton Fried Chicken] was to get people to look at the chicken houses again and see if we can revitalize the traditions.”
In 20 years, will there be any Serbian-owned fried chicken houses in Ohio? It’s hard to know. It doesn’t have the mass appeal of, say, Nashville hot chicken. Young people aren’t lining up to consume lard and hot sauce that’s actually rice. Eastern European food isn’t necessarily sexy. Who will be willing to take up the mantle when the older generation bows out? Unless it somehow suddenly breaks into the mainstream in a big way, this chicken is likely to stay in eastern Ohio, making it one of the few truly regional foods left. Barberton is a good road trip if you live in the Midwest, and I think it’s something you should try once. Not only because it’s delicious, but because it could be gone soon. Barberton chicken is likely fleeting—which is ironic, because weeks later I can still taste the lard.