Why would you drive 85 miles for a chicken dinner? You might ask yourself that question on a misty Sunday afternoon, meandering along Route 20 east and in the countryside between Cooperstown and Oneonta, stomach growling.
But then you see the smoke billowing across state Route 7, catch your first whiff of barbecue chicken in the air, glimpse the retro, blinking neon sign and note the parking lot packed with cars – and the question becomes a moot point.
Welcome to Brooks' House of BBQ. The Brooks name is a household one in Oneonta, in the Southern Tier, where generations of Oneontans have grown up on Brooks’ signature chicken and crave that hometown flavor when they move away.
Brooks’ opened in 1961, on a much smaller scale, and now boasts the largest enclosed barbecue pit east of the Mississippi. The place can seat several hundred and has grown into a roadside attraction. There’s a gift shop selling ice cream, souvenirs and many flavors of Brooks products, including sauces, seasonings, rubs and marinades, all made and packaged on site.
But back to the chicken: That’s what brought us to Brooks’, after all.
The chicken served at Brooks’ is basted with a simple sauce made with oil, vinegar, egg, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper. It’s grilled low and slow, and turned frequently, yielding chicken that’s slightly dark on the outside, moist and tender inside, and slightly smoky in flavor.
It’s a close relative of the “Cornell chicken’’ developed by the late Dr. Robert C. Baker, professor of poultry science and food science at Cornell University, who came up with an egg wash/baste recipe to help sell more chickens. It’s ubiquitous in Upstate New York: If you’ve been to a roadside or church barbecue around here, you’ve had this style of chicken.
We sampled the chicken in a half-chicken dinner and a chicken and rib combo dinner, and found it to be delicious. A half-chicken dinner sounds enormous, but when the chicken is that good, the temptation is to keep on picking at it, even after you’ve become full.
The ribs, meanwhile, were fall-off-the bone tender and glistening with a thick, somewhat sweet glaze. Meals come with your choice of potato and a trip to the salad bar – big bowls of iceberg lettuce and the usual toppings and dressings.
Supper left no room to spare for dessert, but we did tuck a slice of house-made coconut pie in the cooler, along with chicken dinner leftovers.
Had it been a nicer day, we would have eaten outside at a picnic table. A line of diners waiting to be seated snaked through the restaurant, but we eliminated wait time by requesting seats at the S-shaped counter.
Brooks is a well-run operation – no frills, no alcohol, the type of place that Jane and Michael Stern, of “Roadfood’’ fame, might seek out in their travels – and the type of place worth going out of your way for.
Why would you drive 85 miles for a chicken dinner? Because it tastes really good.
Brooks House of Bar-B-Q is at 5560 State Route 7, Oneonta, about 85 miles from Syracuse. The restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. On Monday holidays (like Memorial Day and Labor Day) the restaurant is open, then closed on Tuesday. Information: (607) 432-1782.