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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Shacking Up

Spa City History Dept.: The current chef-owner, Jasper Alexander, makes chicken according to Hattie’s recipe, even as he has made appropriate adjustments to the look and feel – and menu – of the venerable eatery. But there was a magic about Hattie herself, something I felt when I met her in 1987 to write the piece below. And check out her page at the National Women’s History Museum site.


UNDERSTAND SOMETHING: four stars for ambience doesn't always mean the posh swank of a fancy hotel. The sign over 45 Phila Street reads, simply, “Shack.” 

Photo by Michael Noonan
Inside it’s a crazy jumble of tables, pushed kind of close together, with an aging jukebox in one corner and photos and memorabilia hanging on the walls.

A long counter parallels the back wall; behind that wall is the kitchen which you can glimpse from time to time as Bill Austin carries food with the dignity of a man who knows he’s serving the world’s finest fried chicken.

Which is exactly what he’s doing and has been doing for close to 50 years. And it’s his wife, Hattie, who makes the magic happen back there.

Her chicken shack has been a Saratoga Springs institution since 1938, first at Congress and Federal and then, when urban renewal hit 17 years ago, on Phila Street.

Bill laughs at a rumor that he’s retiring and the Shack will close down. “I have no plans for that,” he insists, wearing his trademark formal shirt and crushed-velvet bow tie.

With summer comes seven-day-a-week operations beginning with a breakfast where pancakes are king, and then the famous dinner, based on and never veering too far from -- chicken.

And for a reason I can’t quite recall, my wife and I dropped in the other night with a vegetarian in tow.  “Sorry,” I said to Liz. “I forgot.”

Liz came away with the least expensive dinner: for less than $3 she got a grilled cheese sandwich and side orders of the day’s veg and potatoes.

Not that Susan and I exactly went to the cleaners. You pay $7 or $8 for the chicken dinner, depending on how much meat you want; I ordered a special of roast duckling for $9 – again, a complete dinner.

Duck, I reasoned, should be right up Hattie’s alley – she knows how to cultivate the crispy skin that’s so important. This duck was outrageously crisp, in an orange sauce outrageously sweet and lip-puckery. The half-duckling was served over a stuffing that relied on simple seasonings, pepper the star.

Hattie knows how to season the way few chefs do. First of all, she works with pepper, a most neglected spice. Sure, any cook will toss a bit in with the salt, but Hattie draws it out of the background. I’ve had green beans in her restaurant seasoned only with pepper and a little bit of ground cumin. Delicious.

Of course, you don’t fool with fried chicken unless you know your herbs. It’s easy to forget that Harlan Sanders based his original recipe on a blend guarded more fiercely than the formula for Coke, but the Colonel started with something special.

And Hattie leaves him way behind. Seasoning is the harmonization of food. As a morsel starts its journey on the back side of your teeth, the flavor should roll the length of your tongue, releasing its various aspects to the various sensors (papillae) thereon. First the sweet, the honey and sugar, as it passes over the tip; then the pungency of the other spices as the flavor blossoms, flower-like. Good seasoning excites the entire mouth into a gustatory celebration.

And I haven’t even mentioned the biscuits. You get them with dinner, simple baking soda biscuits, but how deceptive the word “simple” in this case. They are the Platonic Ideal of Baking Soda Biscuits, not exactly fluffy but certainly very soft. Begging to be dipped in the remains on your plate.

A fellow at a table next to ours leaned over on his way out. “Be sure to try the cobbler,” he suggested. It comes with dinner, and on this occasion we had a choice of apple or cherry. I chose cherry. I had it with ice cream. I didn’t share it.

Dinner for two, with tax, tip and beverage, was $27. METROLAND restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experiences may differ.
HATTIE'S CHICKEN SHACK – 45 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs, 584-4790. Bring your own wine or beer. Serving breakfast 8-1, dinner 1-8 daily.  Reservations strongly urged for dinner, especially with the summer upon us. No credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 2 July 1987

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