Barberton chicken, served at a handful of restaurants in the Akron suburb, is not like other fried chicken. Cooked in lard, it has an unspeakably luxurious red gold crust; and it differs from ordinary fast-food fried chicken not only by the dripping moistness its crust encases, but by its shape. It is cut the old-fashioned way into wing, drumette, breast, leg, thigh, and back, an economical technique left over from Depression days when cooks tried to maximize the number of pieces they could get from one chicken. When you sink your teeth into a piece, you may find meat where you might not expect meat; but let us assure you that every bite is delicious. It is not for nothing that Barberton lays claim to being the chicken capital of the world.
Belgrade Gardens, since 1933, is the original source of this goodness; and while the menu is broad – including steaks, chops, seafood, sandwiches, and some really good chicken paprikash – first-time visitors need to get the full chicken dinner. You can get white or dark meat or a combination or a plate of nothing but legs, thighs, backs, wings or tenders. Each is available small, medium, and large.
The chicken itself is the center of a ritual feast that also includes a bowl of kaleidoscopically spicy tomato-rice hot sauce. At a table near ours, a woman was telling her friends that she used to come to Belgrade Gardens every week. “My mother would always take home hot sauce to try to duplicate the recipe,” she said. “She came close, but father never allowed that she had done it.” In addition to the sauce, you get a timbale of sweet cole slaw, and a fistful of French fries plus a basket of white and dark bread.