I don’t like to think of myself as overly stubborn, but I know I have a stubborn streak, especially when I get a crazy little idea stuck in my head – usually related to a place to eat or visit – and I obsess and annoy Beth with it until we finally act on it.
Well, several months back I read a piece on Gastro Obscura all about Barberton, Ohio, and how it’s been dubbed the “Fried Chicken Capital of the World” because of a specific type of fried chicken, first served by Serbian immigrants in the 1930s. The dish is called pohovana piletina, known here as “Barberton fried chicken,” and is a relatively simple dish of freshly butchered whole chickens brined, left overnight in an egg wash and breading, then fried in lard.
We travel through that area all the time, but rarely stop, however… just recently we finally had the time to detour to fried chicken.
Now, the four primary purveyors of Barberton fried chicken are all grouped together within about 3-4 miles of each other in Barberton and neighboring Norton. The first introduce the dish was Belgrade Gardens, opened in 1933. Hopocan Gardens followed in 1942, Whitehouse Chicken in 1950 (which also has locations in Green and Wadsworth), and Village Inn (originally Milich’s) arrived 1955.
So of course I talked and talked about it. I polled folks on Instagram and Twitter to find out which location to visit, and the responses were pretty evenly spread, so we decided to start with the first, the Barberton location of Belgrade Gardens.
Our first impression was that Belgrade Gardens sits on an expansive open lot tucked into a largely residential area. All of the fried chicken joints are just south of I-76, but they’re solidly surrounded by homes. Just look for the tall red and yellow sign close to the road, and pull into the size-able parking lot.
The expansive, old school eatery reminded us of similar destinations across the country, like the cafeteria-style rotisserie chicken spot Kauffman’s BBQ that Beth’s grandparents so loved in eastern Pennsylvania. There are lots of muted beiges and creams; large, carpeted dining rooms; small alcoves for private groups; decades of newspaper clippings on the walls; and nods to the Serbian heritage of the owners.
We were warmly greeted, ushered quickly to a table, and given menus. We perused the greatest hits, but knew we’d be zeroing in on the fried chicken. The brought bread to the table, and – I don’t know what we were thinking – we ordered an appetizer sampler of onion rings, mozzarella sticks, jalapeno poppers. I suppose it was a warm-up for all the fried food headed our way.
The real star of the show is the fried chicken, of course. I ordered the regular, labeled as the house specialty on the menu. It’s a mix of drumsticks, wings, backs – all the great dark meat.
I certainly wouldn’t call it fancy, but it’s tender, juicy, with a dense and well seasoned crust. There’s none of the folded layers of crispy, peppery breading like a Southern-style fried chicken, but… it’s dark meat chicken brined, breaded, and fried in lard. How bad can it be?
Also of note are sides like the “hot sauce,” a zesty tomato and rice stew. I dug the rice pilaf infused with shredded chicken and the mashed potatoes with a clearly chicken-based gravy. We did miss out on the vinegar-heavy cole slaw, which a number of commenters recommended.
It’s very easy to see why this food has staying power. The large space is welcoming to big families and groups of friends. The cuisine is the very definition of comfort food: chicken, potatoes, rice, a few veggies here and there. Much of it fried or served with gravy.
I loved the experience, so consider me satisfied, having finally tasted Barberton fried chicken. Although there are now three more places we’ll need to try…
401 E. State St.
Barberton, OH 44203
476 Massillon Rd.
Uniontown, OH 44685
Open daily noon to 8 p.m.
Find them on Facebook and @belgradegardens on Instagram