It’s the end of the month and therefore time for another installment of Travels with Frenchie, the monthly food series in which a trio of culturally mismatched San Antonians explores the local hinterland in search of dining adventure. As always, the culinary vice squad consisted of: Frenchie (aka Fabien Jacob, celebrated local sommelier), Carlos the Bike Mechanic (aka Carlos Montoya, a man who eats only obscure fruits and grilled meats), and me (a former vegan and known taco-truck stalker).
Gene Hopstetter, a recent New Orleans transplant, is dedicated to finding New Orleans-style food in San Antonio. He works at the Southwest Research Center but isn’t afraid to drive all over town in search of delicious fried chicken, so we met up with Gene at Chatman’s Chicken on South W.W. White Road to exchange notes.
Chatman’s is very casual. It looks a lot like a fast-food chain from the outside, but it’s completely local and very much part of the community. On weekends, hot-rod enthusiasts fill the parking lot to discuss chrome, hydraulics, and other pertinent issues.
“You have to try the fried chicken livers,” Gene told me while we were in line to order. “Yeah, sounds good,” I lied. I recently reviewed La Fiesta Patio Café for the July Meatless in Steer City column `find it online at sacurrent.com`, and I’ve felt myself regressing to healthier ways. It’s just the facts: When I think of a chicken liver, I imagine a toxic sponge-like organ from an imprisoned bird that was fed a steady diet of antibiotics. On the other hand, I also recognize that truth is ultimately in the flavor, and experiences in dining, like in life, can be everything. With this internal battle waging, I ordered a huge bucket of chicken along with livers, corn fritters, gizzards, greens, and mac and cheese.
Let’s focus first on the main item. The fried chicken can be special-ordered in two fantastic flavors – lemon-pepper and spicy. We tried and liked both. Frenchie thought the meat was very tender. “The best thing was the crust,” Carlos said. “Crispy and flavorful.” Gene was equally effusive: “This is a very well-fried chicken. The batter is light, crispy, generous, and satisfying. Not the heavy, pasty stuff you’d get at a chain restaurant.” The cayenne in the spicy version can be deceptive. “It’s not the eye-watering heat you’d get from the hot-and-spicy chicken in New Orleans,” Gene reminded me, but it was enough to make my eyes mist up when no one was looking.
A favorite at Chatman’s are the corn fritters — great little nuggets of flavor made of a crisp flour crust surrounding a spoonful of sweet creamed corn. The mac and cheese was comforting but mild; Gene wanted more of a “cheesy tang or black-pepper bite.” I ate a lot of the collard greens while contemplating the chicken livers. The greens were mildly sweet, as if they contained a little barbecue sauce. Carlos was surprisingly complimentary. “When I saw the greens it reminded me of spinach (vile weed!),” he admitted. “But it tasted 10 light years better.” No one loved the fried gizzards. Frenchie found them very chewy. He’s used to duck gizzards served in an arugula salad with a raspberry vinaigrette, like he enjoyed back in France.
And finally … the chicken livers. If you’re an anemic vegetarian, eating liver will give you a good supply of iron, so there’s that paradox to consider. I took a few and held them to the light before skimming each through a small pond of cream gravy. What I liked best about the livers was Gene’s passion for them. “Do not trash talk the lowly chicken liver,” he cautioned me. “You first get the satisfying crunch of warm batter just out of the grease, then the chocolate texture of the chicken liver. You’ll feel like royalty, and all this for less than $4.”
The evening concluded with a discussion of the fascinating New Orleans food scene — the rise in taquerias as the city rebuilds, and rumors that the Vietnamese now make the best po’ boys in town. Gene still misses his hometown food, but Chatman’s put a smile on his face.
Gene: Even the bones tasted good.
Frenchie: You can get a lunch combo meal for 99 cents.
Carlos: I went back and just knocked out a 12 piece. That’s some killer chicken!
Jones: Don’t get bamboozled by overpriced comfort food; get the real thing at Chatman’s. •
1792 S. W.W. White Rd