Bakesale Betty -- June 2009 report
Bakesale Betty has been a love of mine for a long time, and I finally got around to writing about it, now that I've sadly moved away for the time being. Over a dozen or so visits, pretty much everything was good, but it was the fried chicken sandwich that kept drawing me back. Below is what I had to say about it, and if you want to see the sandwich in all its glory, the pictures can be found here... http://www.alifewortheating.com/calif...
Fiercely loyal to my previous home of New York, I was slow to embrace Berkeley. Skinny jeans and flannel predominated. I couldn’t squeeze my forearm – much less a leg – into the former, and I looked heroically stupid in the latter. The hippies had retired to expensive, wood-paneled cottages in the hills that looked down on countless trees they had once hugged. And neither the men nor women who inherited their wrinkly dashikis seemed particularly fond of shaving, but all looked ready to be extras should the producers of Forrest Gump wish to re-shoot any Vietnam War protest scenes.
I was lost in a strange new world, and it took a blue-haired woman who double-dips to make me feel at home.
Her name is Alison Barakat, but people call her Betty. I’d like to believe that she once held wildly successful bake sales, though I’m not sure. All I know is that she now owns Bakesale Betty in Oakland, and she double-dips her fried chicken.
But first, she buries the bottom half of a torpedo roll from Acme with a mountain of cole slaw. Cabbage, onion, jalapeño and parsley are its constituents. They are shaved, sliced, and chopped before being tossed with piquant Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and extra-virgin olive oil. Don’t even mention carrots; they have no place here. Mayonnaise would be heretical. Betty’s slaw is always crisp, vinegary-tart and jalapeño spicy.
Her double-dipping method for the chicken yields a batter that is thick, but crunchy throughout. Cayenne pepper tickles your tongue as you crack through the crust. The breaded bird is so busty you wonder if it’s been surgically enhanced. They say there’s only one breast on each sandwich, but that depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. In any case, the chicken is placed on top of the cole slaw, never under, before it’s crowned with the other half of the roll.
The sandwich tastes like happiness, love, and world peace. And these sentiments are only enhanced with hot sauce. I’m a Tapatío man myself, but I don’t judge the Frank’s Red Hot fans too harshly, even if pouring a vinegar-based sauce on vinegar-dressed slaw seems to me like a deranged attempt at pickling the poor chicken. I apply several glugs of the spicy stuff, and nothing else is necessary. For the next few moments, nothing else matters.
People line up for this chicken sandwich, and a veritable battalion of prep cooks pump them out warm all day. I still haven’t figured out whether one waits “on line” or “in line” in California, but I gladly queue up while I try to figure that out. Betty knows when the line gets crazy. Buttery pecan shortbread cookies may drop out of the sky to ease the wait, or a cup of sweet-tart frozen lemonade might mysteriously show up on your tray at the end, though none was ordered. The last time I went, they had run out of sandwiches — a harsh reality we must all face one day or another — but a thick slice of the darkest, finest banana bread I’ve tasted was sweet consolation.
Some people don’t order the chicken sandwich at Bakesale Betty. Nobody is perfect.
Some get the egg salad sandwich, which as much as I would like to slam, is actually pretty good. It’s got eggs and red onions, plenty of arugula, and — surprise! — no mayonnaise. I’ve seen others walk out with the chicken sandwich minus the bread. A friendly newsflash for them: sorry, but that doesn’t make it a “chicken salad”.
The strawberry shortcake is a legend in its own time. That time, of course, is between April and July, when the berries are at their most beautiful. A crumbly vanilla shortcake gets mounded with fresh whipped cream before macerated strawberries are showered over the top. By the end, it all melds together into a cohesive bite of summertime. My only complaint is that the shortbread can get soggy. If they would assemble them to order instead of keeping in them in the refrigerator case, this would be a non-issue. But alas, you just have to be quick in disposing of the shortcake. This is rarely a problem for anyone.
I always get a cookie for each hand, and it’s not always easy choosing between chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and snickerdoodle. All of Betty’s cookies (except, of course, the shortbread) skew toward chewy. But my perennial favorite, the ginger molasses, is studded with fat nuggets of crystallized ginger whose sticky spice I can’t get enough of. It’s not a cookie you merely eat; it’s one you revel in.
Tart lemon bars and dark, spicy gingerbread never disappoint. Brownies satisfy with or without walnuts. Sticky buns are moist, yeasty, and of pleasantly manageable proportions. Cupcakes come crowned with just the right amount of icing to see you through to the end without putting an end to you.
It seems you cannot go wrong with a slice of pie. The crust is thick, sweet, and flaky-chewy every time I’ve had it. Pumpkin in the fall and olallieberry in late spring have been my favorites.
But Betty is not infallible. There is exactly one thing that she offers that I don’t like — the Lamingtons . These sponge cake bars sandwiching strawberry jam, dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut. “An Australian favorite!”, the website exclaims. I cannot share the enthusiasm. Between the coconut and the cake, I found it very dry, like swallowing a mouthful of feathers. The chocolate and strawberry jam lubricated only enough to keep me from choking, I think. And the overall taste was really quite bland.
Let’s get real, though. Encountering just one thing I wasn’t particularly fond of over the course of nearly a dozen visits is a very good batting average. And it almost goes without saying that the chicken sandwich has never failed me. Mrs. Barakat has published the recipe for it before, but tweak it at your own risk. If you do not live close to an Acme Bakery, do not even bother. It won’t be quite the same. Though you will have some very fine fried chicken, regardless.
I can’t say that Bakesale Betty is the only reason I love California. But it was one of the first. I’ve come to realize that a lot of women here have blue hair, actually. But this one is special. And her sandwich will be a thing dearly missed when I move.
5098 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609
re: Lori SF
I'm too much of an optimist to want to believe that it was lightyears better way back when. I hear the same argument in discussions about certain high-end restaurants. I want to enjoy the moment, and until I have a similar sandwich elsewhere that's better, I want to enjoy Bakesale Betty.
I picked up a couple for a flight to Paris, didn't eat them on the plane because the food on Air France was quite good, and ended up eating them ~18 hours later while stuck at CDG waiting for a late connecting flight. Would have been better hot and fresh, but they still were a good picnic.
I went here for the first time this weekend. I'm not usually a huge fan of egg salad sandwiches but it was 3pm on Saturday and I was hungry so I thought I'd give it a try (it was the only vegetarian option other than pastries). I thought it was really good - no mayo but not dry, fresh, good bread.
I also second everyone on the delicious strawberry shortcake.
Too bad you're moving now that you've come to love it!
Since I'm a pretty good home baker, I'm not overly impressed by most of the offerings at Bakesale Betty's -- they are, in fact, the kind of things a pretty good home baker would produce. However -- and this is a big however -- I love the strawberry shortcake. Lovelovelove. And I think the price is very reasonable -- I couldn't make it myself with the same quality ingredients for a whole lot less.
re: Ruth Lafler
I completely agree with you on both accounts. I am an ex-professional baker, and I like my banana bread, chocolate chip cookies and other items better, but her strawberry shortcake is delish! I've never actually bought it, so I don't know about the value factor, but I've been given it twice for free, and my husband and I shared it both times because it was so huge.
re: Ruth Lafler
I've been impressed by the BB stuff I've tried precisely because they do a good job of replicating home-style baked goods on a commercial scale.
I'm not likely to buy them, since it's so much cheaper to make them at home, but I think that's a great service for people who don't bake. Much like Just Desserts was back in the day (and still is to a limited extent).