After yet another gloomy-grey winter’s day, it might be tempting to crack the seal of that wee plastic bottle tucked into the brown paper bag on the car’s passenger seat. Undoubtedly, its contents would be “a cure for what ails you.” But like most old-fashioned tonics, this one is comprised almost entirely of alcohol. Best, perhaps, to wait until after the drive.
That old-fashioned tonic is, in fact, an Old Fashioned cocktail ($10), crafted by the folks at Soho in Ohio City and intended to be poured over ice and enjoyed at home. This notion of “enjoyed at home” runs so counter to the Soho ethos that it’s almost too much to bear. After all, the entire premise of the joint is to convey owners Nolan Konkoski and Molly Smith’s appreciation for southern hospitality (the “so” and “ho” in Soho). For nine years, meals at this cherished restaurant have begun with complimentary biscuits, butter and jam and ended with gratis Charleston Chews. In between are boisterous meals lubricated with enough bourbon and rye-laced beverages to make poor decisions appear sound.
As lovers of great food and restaurants, we’ve already lost so much this year. So it was heartwarming to hear that management would be reopening the doors for the first time since March. But when that happened this past November, almost everything about the business had changed, including the name. For the time being, Soho goes by Chicken Run as a way to distinguish the quick-serve spinoff from the full-service precursor.
“It’s so much different from what we used to do, obviously,” said Konkoski. “But we’ve finally gotten over how weird it is handing people food through a window instead of full-service.”
Yes, Chicken Run swaps that trademark cordiality for the safety and efficiency of an impersonal pick-up window. But the items that make their way through the pass are still a boon for Southern food fans who have had to do without for lo these many months. Like many modern meals, these begin with a visit to an online-ordering portal. At the preselected date and time, a button is pushed, a window is raised, and the goods swiftly exchanged.
Despite being pared down, the menu doesn’t appear to lack in any appreciable way. We can still order some of Cleveland’s best fried chicken by the breast ($5), thigh ($4) or drum ($3) and pair it with sides like cheesy grits, mac and cheese and mashed potatoes and gravy. Meals at home still can commence with those heavenly biscuits, butter and jam, but they’re no longer on the house ($5). No Soho dinner is complete without that savory pimento cheese dip ($10), served with a bountiful bag of house-fried chips.
“Old favorites” like chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits date clear back to opening day, as do staples like deviled eggs and fried green tomatoes. The gumbo ($10) is every bit as hot, thick, smoky and satisfying as I recall – even after the 20-minute drive. This version is loaded with shrimp, sausage and chicken, fortified with rice, and aggressively spiced to ward of the chill. For good measure, add a few dashes of the Good Golly hot sauce, sold in adorable 2- and 4-ounce squeeze bottles.
The most significant changes arrived in the form of handhelds – no surprise given the fast-casual conversion. For a few years now, Soho touted one of the best fried chicken sandwiches around – one bound together with pimento cheese, coleslaw, dill pickles and remoulade. That earth-shatteringly good stack (now called the Nashville, $12) is joined by versions tricked out with country ham, deviled-egg salad and, we kid you not, bacon, peanut butter and jam. A separate line of sandwiches swaps the glossy egg buns for airy buttermilk biscuits and the results are predictably delicious. Many, like the San Antonio ($12), are brunch-themed, starring scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns and chowchow. There's even a tub o’ gravy for dipping. Others feature lox and guac, bacon and fried green tomatoes, and fried chicken and spicy schmaltz.
When seated at Soho’s bar, one is propelled through all seven deadly sins thanks to a staggering collection of more than 100 American whiskeys. For now, that beautiful view has been whittled down to a dozen or so cocktails, packaged to go in vessels listing the contents.
Bouncing around at the bottom of the bag we discovered a few Charleston Chews. The candies cheerfully reminded us of lively meals inside the Ohio City restaurant, which at present is closed up tighter than a live clam. Chicken Run, as good and relevant as it is, is no substitute for the real McCoy. Thankfully, the owners vow to bring it back to life as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Chicken Run by Soho
1889 W. 25th St., Cleveland