- GOOD EATS: AQ chicken chain proves all right.
The humble chicken. Where would we all be without you, chicken — tastiest of all birds other than the California condor? For one, several members of Arkansas’s Tyson clan would probably be breaking tires and working at Wal-Mart instead of lounging all day beside rooster-shaped swimming pools filled with single malt scotch. And, for the love of mike, how would we ever find another way to describe to friends what an exotic meat tastes like? The rattlesnake burger industry alone could be set back decades.
Luckily for us, at around 3:46 p.m. on the Seventh Day, when He was getting tired of laying around and there was nothing good on cable, God created the chicken. Luckily, he had also created the frying pan that day. The Lord put it all together with some flour and a little hot Crisco, and He saw that it was real, real good.
Recently, while on a one-day jaunt to the NWA, we had a chance to sample the fare at one of the legendary purveyors of our favorite bird, AQ Chicken House. Though you might assume that any restaurant founded 60 years ago must be doing something right, we tend to never judge a place by its track record or full parking lot. That said, we were genuinely surprised by AQ. Almost everything we tried was a real treat.
On the outside, the Fayetteville incarnation of AQ (the original, founded in 1947, is in Springdale… and, by the way, “AQ” stands for “Arkansas Quality,” according to the back of the menu) looks like any number of tourist trap restaurants, dripping with jigsawed gingerbread and stained glass, in a rough approximation of a white farmhouse. The “Granny’s House” theme continues on the inside as well, with chintz wallpaper, intricate moldings and small dining rooms, all helping to cut down on the barnlike feeling you can get from some places this size.
Though it has a little something for everyone — including salads, steaks and sandwiches — the menu mostly sticks to the basics. At AQ, that means chicken, with AQ’s famous pan-fried chicken front and center. Hungry from our morning’s long trek over the mountains, we decided to start things off with a selection from AQ’s surprisingly short list of appetizers. While my first choice was what the menu promised were award-winning chicken livers, my companion was squeamish on the idea. Given that, we chose the runner up: batter dipped mushrooms ($4.99). Though I expected a handful of fried blandness, what we got instead can only be described as a mound — an overfull basket of big caps, fried golden brown in a dense, sweet, well-seasoned batter. Served with a cup of AQ’s house dressing (a peppery almost-ranch), they might have been the best fried mushrooms I’ve ever had, anywhere — not to mention almost a meal in themselves for Companion and I. Next time I go, I’ve got to see what AQ can do with a chicken liver, even if Companion has to sit two tables over.
Our hunger muzzled by the fried mushrooms, we turned to the main event. Always eager to put my 2 cents in anytime a restaurant calls a dish “World Famous,” I went straight to the top of the menu, trying the three-piece pan-fried chicken ($8.29, plus $1.09 to step up to all white meat), selecting sweet potato casserole and homemade macaroni and cheese as sides. Companion, meanwhile, decided to try the chicken tenders ($7.99), with cole slaw and mashed potatoes on the side.
In a word, the chicken turned out to be nothing short of superb. Though the white meat might have been a bit moist for my taste, the breading and seasoning were perfect: peppery and bold, with maybe a hint of paprika. The sides didn’t disappoint either, with the macaroni swimming in a creamy, not-too-cheesy sauce, and the sweet potatoes turning out to be possibly the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant. Companion, meanwhile, said the chicken tenders were also fine, coated in what seemed to be more of the dense breading seen on our mushrooms. Though the cole slaw turned out to be a bit run-of-the mill, he reports that his mashed potatoes were buttery, creamy and good.
Though we initially dismissed AQ as Tourist Flypaper — the kind of aw-shucks, faux backwoods feed trough you find down nearly every off-ramp in America these days — the lesson here is not to discount a place just because of its popularity with the masses or cheesy decor. From now on, any trip we take to the great Arkansas Northwest will have to include AQ and more of its tasty vittles. If you get in that neck of the woods, stop in. Chances are you won’t be disappointed.