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October 14, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, October 14, 2005

Cross the road for this Cross the road for this (October 14, 2005)

Chicken Ranch offers rotisserie versions of your favorite feathered friend

By Jennifer Aquino

Chicken Ranch hatched on University Avenue in Palo Alto a little more than two months ago, but it appears as though few people have noticed its birth amid the dozens of grab-and-go eateries.

The small storefront that used to be Palermo has been transformed into a rotisserie chicken restaurant that looks more fast food than slow roast. Its egg-yolk bright walls, stenciled chicken border and plain tables make it look like a cross between a McDonald's and small-town deli. Despite its lack of ambiance, it's a shame that it's almost always empty.

The small restaurant offers some very well-seasoned, smoky, fall-off-the bone-tender chicken featured in a number of dishes from wraps to soup to salads. While not every twist on the bird is a winner, the chicken in every dish is undoubtedly delicious. It's a good, easy place to grab lunch or bring home dinner when you are too tired to cook.

Chicken Ranch is related to the popular Gyros, Gyros, a Mediterranean restaurant on the corner of Cowper Street and University Avenue. Bolton Bulut, the owner, said he jumped at the opportunity to open Chicken Ranch down the street from Gyros, Gyros when Palermo vacated because he saw an opportunity to offer something Palo Alto lacked -- rotisserie chicken.

Rotisserie chicken is typically Mediterranean and dates back to the time when nomadic people learned to grill and roast their meat over camp fires. At Chicken Ranch, the rotisserie chicken is placed on horizontal skewers and slowly rotated in front of a wood-fired oven. The flavor of the meat has more to do with the breed of chicken and the temperature of the oven than marinades.

Birds are sold as either a quarter ($6.25), half ($8.59) or whole ($9.95), and all come with various sides depending on the special you order. You pay 75 cents more for white meat.

The rotisserie chicken has a wood-y flavor and is tender. The skin, covered in garlic and thyme, slides off the meat. The rotisserie jerk chicken (1/4, $6.50; 1/2, $8.95) bears the same savory succulence as the rotisserie chicken, but has a tangy, spicy sauce infused with fennel.

There's also an option to order baby back ribs that are mesquite-grilled and slathered with barbecue sauce. You can order the ribs with sides or in combination with chicken and sides. The ribs are tender and moist, with a strong barbecue sauce bought from a supplier.

While the meat shines, the sides are lackluster. There are six cold sides and seven hot sides to choose from. The potato salad, coleslaw and mashed potatoes were the best of the lot. The potato salad was packed with parsley and chives and slathered in mayonnaise and lemon. The coleslaw featured shredded lettuce and mayonnaise in a tangy, sweet dressing. The buttermilk mashed potatoes were buttery and creamy with the sharpness of buttermilk.

On the other hand, the steamed veggies, which are frozen then steamed, looked wilted and bore little flavor. The cheese pasta was nothing more than pasta with a scant amount of parmesan cheese and butter.

Chicken Ranch offers more than just dinners. There are several good lunch options. The chicken soup ($2.95) is fabulous. The broth is thick and amber-colored with a punch of onion and garlic. It's some of the best chicken soup I've ever had, though the veggies are rather tasteless.

The jerk chicken wrap ($5.75), marinated Jamaican-style jerk chicken, tomatoes, lettuce and home made barbecue sauce wrapped in a tortilla, was fresh and pungent. The onions and the spices on the chicken left my senses clear and my taste buds alive. The rotisserie chicken sandwich ($5.59) featured tender chicken dripping in an unidentified sauce. The ciabatta bread was soft and the tomatoes fresh, but the sauce -- which tasted like a Caesar dressing -- was overwhelming. With a bit less sauce, this sandwich would be a winner.

The only item that was a real disappointment was the chicken pot pie ($6.25). On the menu it's described as homemade pot pie stuffed with chicken, mozzarella cheese and fresh garden vegetables and covered with pastry. What I received was a soupy concoction of veggies and chicken in a tin pie plate. Separate from the "pot pie" filling were two hard pieces of overly cooked pastry dough. It lacked flavor or any of the buttery warmth of a pot pie.

Another disappointment came in the way of dessert. The key lime pie had a graham cracker crust with key lime filling and pillows of meringue on top. The crust was soggy and the filling flavorless.

If you like Gyros, Gyros, you'll more than likely appreciate Chicken Ranch. The chicken is fresh and tender, and the sandwiches and soup are standouts. Perhaps you'll find this new twist on fast food a healthy and tasty alternative to what you might find at a chain franchise.

INFORMATION: Chicken Ranch, 452 University Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 328-1965
Hours: Sunday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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