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The year of hot chicken and picnics

Balboa Park seemed as good a place as any to try Baba’s

An extreme chicken tender with a side of macaroni, in a box ready to picnic
An extreme chicken tender with a side of macaroni, in a box ready to picnic

Right about now, I’m supposed to be indoor dining somewhere and reporting how great it feels that we’re trending back toward normalcy. But not so fast! Yes, restaurant owners and their bottom lines may be thrilled to host diners once again. And yes, many San Diego eaters are happy to reclaim the option to meet and linger over table seating while having grown-up conversations (versus the type that take place online).

Place

Baba's Hot Chicken

406 University Ave Unit B, San Diego

However, some of us are content to wait for the vaccination train to reach our stops before we step inside to 25 percent capacity (or whatever it is this week). And besides that, we’ve developed a couple of pandemic-era habits we might not be willing to let go just yet.

Personally, I’ve picnicked more in the past year than I have during any other period of my life, and possibly more than all of them combined. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you can’t or don’t want to dine on premise. Or when you order takeout in North County but live in the south. Or when you live in one of the most outdoor-friendly metropolitan areas in the country.

New to Hillcrest is the latest Los Angeles hot chicken shop to try its luck in San Diego.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been enjoying my little picnic renaissance, the San Diego area has been witnessing the emergence of Nashville Hot Chicken. Even as many in the restaurant industry have struggled through the pandemic, something like ten dedicated hot chicken shops have opened county-wide. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take a bite of hot chicken without thinking about covid-19. Will vaccination raise my heat tolerance? Probably not, but I’ll enjoy finding out for sure.

Point is, it’s no coincidence that more than a couple of my picnic ventures have included a box of spicy fried chicken. The latest to fire up my tastebuds came courtesy of Baba’s Hot Chicken. Like Dave’s Hot Chicken and Main Chick, Baba’s is a Los Angeles hot chicken brand that expanded its way south to capitalize on our city’s sudden hot chicken addiction.

Eventually, Baba's Hot Chicken will serve indoor diners like the pandemic never happened.

I found baba’s mustachioed chicken mascot smack in the urban center of Hillcrest, at University and Fourth Avenue. Which made it an easy grab on the way to a sunny afternoon outing in Balboa Park.

I’m not spilling any secrets by pointing out Balboa Park’s value to this city has somehow increased during recent times of isolation. We’re only just getting our museums back, but a blanket in the grass is all it takes to appreciate the park’s ornate, century old buildings and landscaping. Somehow, I never found it as crowded as I assumed it must be. Thank you parklets, I guess.

A Nashville hot chicken sandwich with mac and cheese, eaten in the shadow of the Botanical Building

While a lot of the hot chicken places come up with cute ways to describe their various levels of spice, Baba’s sticks to five grade of heat, ranging from no spice to extreme. And I’ve got to give the place credit: it’s extreme tenders (two, plus fries, for $11) sit exactly at the point where spice still tastes great to me, without tipping over into tears and hiccups territory. I’m always willing to go hotter, if only on a dare, but this crispy bird, fried in peanut oil, is the baby bear’s juuust right.

Baba's offers sauces for dipping, and counts fried pickles among its side dishes. Of course, any place that offers to put mac and cheese on a chicken sandwich is going to grab my interest. Regular size sandwiches go for $9, while smaller versions go for $6. Add a buck-fifty for mac, then grab a spot near the botanical building and duck pond for picnic supremacy.

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An extreme chicken tender with a side of macaroni, in a box ready to picnic
An extreme chicken tender with a side of macaroni, in a box ready to picnic

Right about now, I’m supposed to be indoor dining somewhere and reporting how great it feels that we’re trending back toward normalcy. But not so fast! Yes, restaurant owners and their bottom lines may be thrilled to host diners once again. And yes, many San Diego eaters are happy to reclaim the option to meet and linger over table seating while having grown-up conversations (versus the type that take place online).

Place

Baba's Hot Chicken

406 University Ave Unit B, San Diego

However, some of us are content to wait for the vaccination train to reach our stops before we step inside to 25 percent capacity (or whatever it is this week). And besides that, we’ve developed a couple of pandemic-era habits we might not be willing to let go just yet.

Personally, I’ve picnicked more in the past year than I have during any other period of my life, and possibly more than all of them combined. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you can’t or don’t want to dine on premise. Or when you order takeout in North County but live in the south. Or when you live in one of the most outdoor-friendly metropolitan areas in the country.

New to Hillcrest is the latest Los Angeles hot chicken shop to try its luck in San Diego.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been enjoying my little picnic renaissance, the San Diego area has been witnessing the emergence of Nashville Hot Chicken. Even as many in the restaurant industry have struggled through the pandemic, something like ten dedicated hot chicken shops have opened county-wide. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take a bite of hot chicken without thinking about covid-19. Will vaccination raise my heat tolerance? Probably not, but I’ll enjoy finding out for sure.

Point is, it’s no coincidence that more than a couple of my picnic ventures have included a box of spicy fried chicken. The latest to fire up my tastebuds came courtesy of Baba’s Hot Chicken. Like Dave’s Hot Chicken and Main Chick, Baba’s is a Los Angeles hot chicken brand that expanded its way south to capitalize on our city’s sudden hot chicken addiction.

Eventually, Baba's Hot Chicken will serve indoor diners like the pandemic never happened.

I found baba’s mustachioed chicken mascot smack in the urban center of Hillcrest, at University and Fourth Avenue. Which made it an easy grab on the way to a sunny afternoon outing in Balboa Park.

I’m not spilling any secrets by pointing out Balboa Park’s value to this city has somehow increased during recent times of isolation. We’re only just getting our museums back, but a blanket in the grass is all it takes to appreciate the park’s ornate, century old buildings and landscaping. Somehow, I never found it as crowded as I assumed it must be. Thank you parklets, I guess.

A Nashville hot chicken sandwich with mac and cheese, eaten in the shadow of the Botanical Building

While a lot of the hot chicken places come up with cute ways to describe their various levels of spice, Baba’s sticks to five grade of heat, ranging from no spice to extreme. And I’ve got to give the place credit: it’s extreme tenders (two, plus fries, for $11) sit exactly at the point where spice still tastes great to me, without tipping over into tears and hiccups territory. I’m always willing to go hotter, if only on a dare, but this crispy bird, fried in peanut oil, is the baby bear’s juuust right.

Baba's offers sauces for dipping, and counts fried pickles among its side dishes. Of course, any place that offers to put mac and cheese on a chicken sandwich is going to grab my interest. Regular size sandwiches go for $9, while smaller versions go for $6. Add a buck-fifty for mac, then grab a spot near the botanical building and duck pond for picnic supremacy.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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