Sam Arnoff is a chicken eater, a serious one. These days, he said, if you are talking chicken in Baltimore, you are talking rotisserie chicken, whole birds cooked on a rotating spit.
When Arnoff isn't working at his job selling long-distance telephone service, he is busy surveying the rotisserie chicken scene.
One night, Arnoff led me on tour of selected chicken restaurants on a section of Reisterstown Road just outside Baltimore in Pikesville that could be called Rotisserie Row. The experience was part dining, part travelogue.
On this night our plan was to visit three chicken spots in a short period of time. We met outside the Kenny Rogers Roasters in a corner of the Woodholme Plaza shopping center.
Arnoff is big man of 50 with a beard and an ample midsection that he tended to pat while making the point that he has always been a serious eater. A native of Cleveland, he lived in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and New York before moving to Maryland five years ago.
He was not above categorizing cities by the kind of chicken he has eaten there.
He thinks New York, for instance, is a difficult place to live. But he conceded it has tremendous chicken. He said the Cuban chicken at the Pollo Supremo restaurant in Union City, a New Jersey suburb of New York, was the best chicken he has eaten. "Marinated and grilled, now that is chicken," he said.
Arnoff quickly directed me to the highlights of "Kenny's." It turned out Arnoff was on a first-name basis with several of the chicken restaurants. For him Roy Rogers restaurants are known as "Roy's." The restaurants that serve Kentucky Fried Chicken may like to be called KFC, but to Arnoff they are known as "The Colonel's place."
Arnoff told me that in his role as a serious chicken eater, he has corresponded with "The Colonel's people." He said he has tried, unsuccessfully, to get The Colonel to serve a full chicken breast, not one that was split and attached to thigh. And he said he has encouraged The Colonel to serve the barbecued chicken at more Maryland restaurants. At one time, he said, he had a letter from The Colonel's people which, when presented at a KFC restaurant, authorized the counter help to dip big chicken pieces in a barbecue sauce normally reserved only for chicken wings. This dipping procedure was the only way, Arnoff said, he could get The Colonel's barbecued chicken in suburban restaurants. Alas, Arnoff said he has since lost the letter.
At Kenny's place, Arnoff told me a highlight was the chicken sandwich served in pita bread. I quickly bought a chicken in pita sandwich -- it tasted like a gyro sandwich with chicken in place of lamb -- and headed down Reisterstown Road to Poulet, our next stop. There, following Arnoff's instructions, I got half a chicken. "The "sides" here are good," he told me using an abbreviated term for side orders, so we got "sides" of garlic-flavored potatoes and a Caesar salad.
We sat at tables out on the sidewalk, and shared the chicken and some stories. We had a great view of the new Boston Chicken restaurant right across the street, which was having a grand opening that night. Arnoff decided to forego the grand opening in part because he had already been to the Boston Chicken restaurant in Columbia.
"I got a coupon and couldn't resist. Hey it was a sale on chicken," he said. His favorite item at Boston Chicken were the potpies, he said.
Arnoff said he often dines with his mother, Sarah Mishkin. The two, he said, have differing views on rotisserie chicken and on many other matters. He liked the oregano flavor of the Poulet chicken; his mother preferred the paprika flavor of chicken at the Seven Mile Market, on Seven Mile Lane.
I liked the spicy Poulet chicken and as we got ready to leave, Arnoff gave me a brief appraisal of what we had eaten. It was good, but not as good as it could be. He wanted more oregano flavor on the inside of the chicken.
We got in our cars and drove down Reisterstown Road to the N.Y.C. Roasted Chicken restaurant. What set this place apart, Arnoff said, was that its chickens were kosher and that some of the birds were roasted over hickory wood. We ordered half a chicken, and sides of spinach and sweet carrots.
Arnoff approved of the smoky chicken, as did I. His mother, he said, does not care for the smoke flavor. So when the two of them dine at N.Y.C., he has the smoked bird, and she has skinless chicken, which is flame-broiled.
Earlier in the evening Arnoff had told me that his choice for consistently best bird was the perfectly browned rotisserie chicken served at Windy Valley, a small restaurant and ice cream shop at Falls and Joppa Roads.
As we parted I told him I was going to stop at Windy Valley on my way home. He looked at his watch, then looked concerned. I would have to hustle, he said, to get there before it closed.
By the time I got there, Windy Valley was closed. But the next night I was there early to get the bird. And the bird lived up to Arnoff's billing.