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Hartford's Best-Kept Culinary Secret: Good Gas Station Fried Chicken

ERIC R. DANTON

March 26, 2009

Gas-station cuisine tends toward uninspiring, on the rare occasions when it's not flat-out nasty: hot dogs turning on the rollers for heaven knows how long; nachos coated in congealing, orange cheese; limp, pre-made sandwiches packed full of nitrates, from lettuce to bread to "meat."

Bleh.

There is, however, an alternative at some Hartford gas stations: fried chicken, and pretty good fried chicken, at that.

Call it a gastronomic idiosyncrasy in a city where the culinary focus tends toward sit-down restaurants and colorful cocktails. That's fine when you have time for fancy eating, but sometimes life dictates the need for food on the run, for just a quick stop for a bite to eat, maybe while you're filling up the gas tank.

If multiple gas stations are selling fried chicken, it follows that one of them has the best fried chicken. In a completely unscientific taste test that involved driving around the South End of Hartford and eating chicken from whatever gas stations seemed to be selling it, the answer is clear: Sam's Food Store at 675 Wethersfield Ave., on the corner of Brown Street, has the best around.

The chicken there, fried in one of a pair of deep fryers behind the counter in the convenience store, is juicy and perfectly cooked. The crispy skin is light and tasty, not too greasy and, over several different trips there, never soggy. It's available by the piece, or as part of a meal deal that includes Jo-Jos battered fried potato wedges a dinner roll and two condiments: the vivid orange one is a Frank's-style hot sauce, and the darker brown one is a barbecue sauce.

The store has a reputation, too: The place is packed on weekend nights with people who are there for chicken. Celebrity sightings have included the rapper Jim Jones, who stopped in after a recent performance in Hartford.

"After the clubs get out, most restaurants are closed," says Rashid Mahmood, who owns the 24-hour filling station. "Sometimes it looks like we are having the after-party or something."

Mahmood, 36, started the Sam's franchise there late last summer, reopening after a previous tenant had lost his lease eight or nine months earlier. The location had long been known in the neighborhood for its chicken, so Mahmood made sure he continued the tradition.

"We knew it was a good spot," he says during a recent lunch at the U.S.S. Chowderpot IV. (He ordered chicken.)

Mahmood knows the chicken trade: Fried chicken was part of the scene at his first job, at the Sam's store at 145 New Britain Ave. in Hartford. (The owner of that station declined to be interviewed.) Mahmood started working there shortly after emigrating from Pakistan when he was 17. Soon, he bought a gas station of his own, on his way to owning several in the area. When it came time to sell chicken at his Wethersfield Avenue store, he knew what to do.

"Our supplier is the same, the way we make it is the same," says Mahmood, who is married with seven children.

This is no secret blend of 11 herbs and spices, though. Mahmood batters his chicken in Red-E-Made flour, a, well, ready-made flour mix. All the same, Colonel Sanders' recipe has nothing on Mahmood's chicken, which he estimates accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of his convenience-store business (gas sales are tallied separately). As the weather gets warmer, and people become accustomed once more to seeing an open gas station in that location, he figures chicken sales will only increase.

"It takes time to build customers," Mahmood says. Becoming known for having good chicken, at a reasonable price, won't hurt, either.

"I wouldn't go just anywhere to buy chicken."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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