When I told friends I was off to eat chicken-fried chicken for breakfast, they all reacted with the same facial gestures: quizzical transforming into disgust and ending with near-outrage. "How do you chicken-fry chicken—isn't that redundant?" one asked.
"You're asking for a coronary!" another gasped, and wasn't that a clichéd thing to say?
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I drove to PAUL'S COFFEE SHOP in Fountain Valley, a tiny dive that looks like a bar from the outside because there are no windows. Inside, it looks every bit the throwback you might expect from a place that hangs both the American and U.S. Marine flags outside: booths, old folks as customers, K-Earth on the speakers, and leatherneck memorabilia ranging from a poster for The Sands of Iwo Jima to a wooden replica of the Marines emblem. The menu is small and doesn't really vary from omelets, hamburgers, pancakes and waffles. But surprises lurk in the specials board—Korean barbecue with kimchi, a linguiça-and-eggs breakfast (note to readers: whenever a restaurant serves this Portuguese sausage, it's a keeper), and a wonderful Hawaiian omelet that's fat with ham and pineapple. You can enjoy all of Paul's meals, and this is the kind of place you want to make a regular stop whenever you pass through the town. But if you're going to visit, delay those dishes for the chicken-fried chicken.
Undoubtedly, it's served in the county only in places where the most resolutely redneck of us reside, where fish tacos draw a question mark and Mexican food is still labeled "Spanish" (as a Mexican omelet is called here). What came before me were eight impolite ounces of breaded glory drowned in peppered gravy—show it to a Newport Beach cougar, and she'd scream. No way I could finish this off, I thought, especially considering I also ordered hash browns and over-easy eggs on the side, and the meal came with four buttered pieces of wheat toast. They provide you with a steak knife to chop the chicken into bits, but the hen fillet was so tender I forked through it as if it were a salad.
Everything about the dish sang of America: the sweet breaded crust, the lean, juicy chicken, a gravy so piping hot my tongue is still stinging from it even a week later (but so creamy you want to spread it across anything you eat). I finished off the chicken-fried chicken, made a note to return for their half-pound hamburgers before closing time (Paul's finishes for the day at 2 p.m.), then returned to the office for the finest nap since Mass.
Paul's Coffee Shop, 16947 Bushard St., Fountain Valley, (714) 962-7879.