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Chicken Out's Delicious Success Lies in Its Elegant Simplicity 

click to enlarge A selection of items from Chicken Out: The Cheep & Cheddar, the Chicken Out and the Spicy Chicken Out sandwiches. - MABEL SUEN
  • A selection of items from Chicken Out: The Cheep & Cheddar, the Chicken Out and the Spicy Chicken Out sandwiches.

When Mike Johnson set out to create the perfect chicken sandwich for Chicken Out, he had one driving principle: Make it simple. A plump, tender piece of meat that, when pierced, reveals its juices. Breading that is crunchy enough without taking over and subtly seasoned with a little something special. A fluffy, butter-griddled potato bun that is so soft you want to nuzzle up to it. Duke’s mayonnaise, the creamiest, most flavorful around, and mild dill pickles sliced thick enough to retain their coolness and crunch, even when placed on a searing hot piece of chicken. There’s nothing complicated about any individual component, but when they all come together to form Chicken Out’s signature offering, you’ll think you’re tasting magic.

SEE ALSO: Chicken Out Is Cluckin’ Good [PHOTOS]

It’s no surprise that Johnson was able to capture such chicken-sandwich lightning in a bottle. Since opening Sugarfire’s original Olivette location in 2012, Johnson has seen one success after another — multiple well-performing outlets across the country, too many barbecue awards to count, an outrageously delicious burger joint (Hi-Pointe Drive-In) and a genius takeover of the Boathouse at Forest Park that finally got the underperforming restaurant’s house in order. If anyone was going to find a way to win the current chicken-sandwich craze, Johnson’s the guy.

Except his plans for Chicken Out predate the current fried-bird trend, or even many of his other successes. For Johnson, a chicken restaurant has always been on the list of things he wanted to do — going back to not long after he launched Sugarfire, and well before he opened Hi-Pointe Drive-In four years ago. In fact, Johnson had originally wanted to turn the old Del Taco that now houses Hi-Pointe into a fried-chicken restaurant, before tabling that idea in favor of burgers. He even had the outlines of his concept drawn out; the restaurant would take inspiration from two prominent eateries: In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast-food chain that is near and dear to his heart, and Chick-fil-A, which, politics aside, he admired for the way it dominates the operations side of the business. However, as he watched fried-chicken restaurants pop up around town, he decided that the market was too saturated and figured he should wait until the timing was right.

click to enlarge Partner Ben Hillman, chef and general manager LaRon Richards and partner Mike Johnson. - MABEL SUEN
  • Partner Ben Hillman, chef and general manager LaRon Richards and partner Mike Johnson.

That time came last June when he opened the first location of Chicken Out in the Delmar Loop. Located in the former Piccione Pastry, Johnson transformed the space into a vibrant orange-and-red spectacle that oozes the sort of in-your-face fun his brand has become known for. Whimsical murals — one, of a chicken playing a guitar, reads, “This joint keeps bawkin’ until the moon goes down” — decorate the shotgun space, and yellow, red and white tiles reminiscent of a vintage, pixeled style serve as the backdrop for the fast-casual spot’s order counter. A handful of banquettes and tables round out the small dining room of the restaurant’s flagship (a second location just opened in Kirkwood this month).

Johnson may have wanted to keep things simple with his sandwich, but he made sure to add in one important detail to elevate both the chicken and the fries at Chicken Out: chicken salt. As he explains, over his many trips to Australia, he fell in love with the condiment, which can best be described as a ramen-like powder mixed with salt and garlic. After getting brined, then dropped in the fryer, the chicken breast comes out and is liberally sprinkled with this magic dust while it’s still searing hot; the condiment gets baked into the breading that way, forming a deeply umami crust. It’s so subtle, you can’t really discern what is going on, but it is prominent enough to make you wonder why the sandwich is so outrageously good.

Chicken Out’s menu is small and does not deviate from, well, chicken. The restaurant offers a spicy Nashville-hot-style version of its sandwich, the Spicy Chicken Out, based on a recipe Johnson obtained from the owners of the famed Hattie B’s in Nashville. Because it’s not saucy, you aren’t prepared for the flaming hot burn that comes from the cayenne, brown sugar and oil that coats the breading. Hot sauce mayonnaise adds to the heat, but the crunchy dills cool things off a bit. It will leave you tingling in the best way possible.

Chicken Out’s signature may be the classic fried-chicken sandwich, but the restaurant’s most dazzling offering is the cleverly named Mo Parm Mo Fowl, a version of a chicken parmesan sandwich that will have you hoping Johnson’s next concept is a red-sauce joint. For this masterpiece, two hunks of breaded fried chicken are covered in marinara sauce with enough heat to suggest spice but not so much as to take it over the edge, then stuffed between two slices of cheese garlic bread. It’s difficult to come to a place like Chicken Out and not order the classic sandwich, but this sure makes the case for deviating from that plan.

click to enlarge The new Kirkwood location dining room. - MABEL SUEN
  • The new Kirkwood location dining room.

Chicken Out offers a few non-fried dishes, such as a Chicken Club, topped with bacon, and a delightful Fit Chick, which pairs a boneless chicken breast with creamy avocado-yogurt dressing and kale slaw. On one visit, the restaurant was also offering a crispy battered fish sandwich, dressed with lettuce and mayo; a subtle, malt-vinegar-y taste evokes classic pub-style fish and chips. Sides include zesty kale slaw, velvety mac and cheese, or cheese fries smothered in a silken, tangy cheese sauce, though really all you need are the regular fries — gorgeous, golden-fried crinkly beauties that are so perfect they were still delicious enough to nosh on even after sitting out for three hours (it was some stress-eating while watching that tragic Wild Card game; don’t judge).

The key to those fries? Chicken salt, of course, though the secret ingredient of their deliciousness — and Chicken Out’s success overall — is Johnson’s ability to make magic out of even the simplest things.

Chicken Out
Multiple locations including 6197 Delmar Boulevard, 314-384-1010.
Sun.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
The Chicken Out sandwich $7.50.
Mo Parm Mo Fowl sandwich $8.50
Fish sandwich $9.

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