By Richard Eber
If fried chicken offered on the menu of fine dining establishments were a living thing, it would likely be placed on the Endangered Species List. It is virtually impossible to find this golden brown delight in restaurants not called Popeye’s or Church’s — or are named after a long-departed character sporting a white goatee.
One significant exception is Casa Orinda, an Orinda restaurant that has been making this dish since this culinary icon opened its doors back in 1932. Today, 23,000 fried chicken dinners are served each year.
The recipe goes back over 70 years. In that bygone era, the flour-and-seasoning mix used for this American classic was provided by a salesman who delivered his secret concoction to the restaurant that, in its early days, fed the crew that constructed the original Caldecott Tunnel.
One day, that salesman told the owners of Casa Orinda that he was leaving town in order to start his own eating establishment back home in Kentucky. Before departing, Harlan Sanders passed on his secret recipe to his loyal Orinda client, with the stipulation that it could not be revealed to anyone. To this day, those who have been operating Casa Orinda have kept their word to “Colonel” Sanders. The results speak for themselves.
Outside of the flour and seasonings, Casa Orinda prepares chicken in a time-honored fashion that never varies. Pieces of high quality Fulton Ranch bird are soaked overnight in a mixture of eggs, melted butter, and water. Prior to cooking, it is breaded in a proprietary mixture of flour and spices. It is then fried for 12-15 minutes at 375 degrees (F), under the direction of Executive Chef Kenneth Jensen, until golden brown.
This culinary masterpiece is served with seasonal fresh vegetables, creamy mashed potatoes — along with a homemade biscuit and the restaurant’s famous orange honey. What could be better?
This is the problem I have with Casa Orinda. Being a connoisseur in a 12-step fried-chicken program, does not allow me to order anything else there. How can one be a restaurant critic if all that is consumed is cuisine that is extra crispy? The answer is to bring a friend and insist that he (or she) order something other than Casa’s trademark dish.
With this in mind, a couple months ago I took my wife to Colonial Sanders upscale utopia: Casa Orinda.
We started with the beet salad which included garbanzo beans, goat cheese, and sliced red onion that was served with home-made red vinaigrette. The salad also contained toasted hazelnuts, which gave it an elegant finish. This masterpiece provided a nice introduction to what followed.
We also decided to sample the soup of the day, which was a creamy, butternut squash concoction. My wife and I grabbed the bowl we shared. The soup was so tasty that fighting ensued over how many tablespoons each of us was to receive. Seasoned with sage combined with pureed squash, chicken stock, and cream, it was easy to know the difference between having a real chef on site compared with the trait of most restaurants, which leave food preparation to line cooks and central kitchen operations.
A short time later, our main courses arrived. Naturally, we shared the chicken, which is better than anywhere in my universe. At this juncture, I was in such total bliss that my wife, consuming the hot biscuit that came with the fried chicken, didn’t even bother me. But I was able to sample her delectable veal scaloppini Marsala. That was something else.
Going back to my early days of dinning at Italian restaurants in San Francisco’s North Beach, veal has always been one of my go-to entrees. Casa Orinda’s rendition was made with a rich sauce, sautéed mushrooms — and, of course, tender veal — rivals what I remembered from Alfred’s in San Francisco many moons ago. We had our order with a side of linguine and asparagus to absorb all of the delicious flavors. Yum!
This food was so outstanding that to-go bags were not required for this trip to Casa Orinda. There was no room left for desert, but the restaurant’s pies prepared by Susan Gilleran are worth noting. There are many different dining selections, including shrimp cocktails, prime rib, and tournedos of beef, lasagna, and other delicacies to try during future visits to this “oldie-but-goody” eating establishment.
But, despite these other options, there will always be fried chicken which brings me to this Orinda landmark.
(Casa Orinda is located at 20 Bryant Way in Orinda. TEL (925) 254-2981.)
Richard Eber is a local writer whose work appears in The Contra Costa Bee and Diablo Gazette. With the Contra Costa Wine Group, he is an award-winning home-wine maker. He is an avid cook who loves to use fresh ingredients grown in his garden.