While The Reader has continued bringing food news, openings, closures and events throughout this pandemic year, one aspect of our former reporting service has been woefully lacking since COVID-19 shut down dining-out options. While your humble Reader writer has continued supporting local, I haven’t spent more than five minutes at a time inside a restaurant and only while quietly waiting for an order among a sea of delivery drivers. Observations each time offered only a somber silence as an amuse-bouche and left me hungry for the thriving scene it took decades to build.
While I have wildly missed watching as a chef’s eyes light up explaining the inspiration for a sauce or the meaning behind a curiously named dish, social distancing has taken “hanging out” with the talent off the menu.
But as this storm begins to lift, so does the heavy pall it has cast on our culinary experiences. While my first foray back into the world was a casual one, the impact felt enormous.
I recently took my first steps into The Switch, the beer and food hall in Blackstone that opened just as the first quarantine’s restrictions lifted in June 2020. Partnering with Bartholomew Restaurant Group, The Switch’s roster of restaurants has undergone an overhaul since its initial opening, and the spot now features several pop-ups alongside regular tenants.
One of the newest Switch stars is the aptly named Dirty Birds, located in the back of the dining hall. It was this cheeky chickeneria that lured me in on a recent rainy afternoon. When I arrived starving post-workout at 1:40 p.m. on a Sunday, I expected at the most a waning din of lingering diners in the hall. What I was greeted with instead was a curling, socially distanced line a dozen deep and an expected 40-minute wait, as the smell of chicken and fries permeated the hall.
The inevitable wait can be spent people-watching, taking in the sights of the hall or grabbing a beer at the conveniently adjacent Infusion. I spent it reveling in the noise of other people simply living their lives again. It was something I hadn’t even thought to miss. A Tinder date at a nearby table was almost enough to diminish the jovial sound of the Dirty Bird kitchen, but someone hating their date will never win over the sound of someone loving to cook in my book.
Nothing to Bawk At
The energy of the kitchen alone made time fly. As I listened to Dan Whalen patiently respond to his customers’ queries, I took it all in. The rubber chickens hanging from the ceilings were the perfect complement to the handwritten cardboard menu above the sweltering kitchen. The guys in matching flour-spattered tees bellowed jovially to one another as one hand-tossed fries and another battered chicken quarters.
As bustling and busy as the kitchen was, I noted that every member of the kitchen staff made eye contact with me and inquired about my day. To be frank, it felt downright scandalous after months of maintaining a relationship with online ordering or phone call to-go orders.
I smiled behind my mask at the fact that for the first time in a year a restaurant felt celebratory again. There was more than deep-fried-pickle chicken happening, but an actual experience to be had.
The main ingredient for Dirty Birds’ soon-to-be famous chicken isn’t what you think it is. While the novel green bean brine the guys trial-and-errored their way into to achieve the pickle-fried flavor or the spicy Debo sauce on the fries may be their signature, it’s not what makes the place addictive.
The three men behind the counter, Moses Mosely, Mike West and Dan Whalen, are more than business partners. They are roommates with a whole lot of history. From touring together as backstage chefs with acts like New Kids on the Block and Elton John to working together at Kitchen Table, this team has had each other’s backs for years. Their chemistry and charisma are the secret ingredients that make not only the recipes happen, but the energy that brings diners back for more. And believe me when I tell you, they know if you’ve been back.
“It’s challenging, but it’s a challenging we chose,” said Mosely. “I get to hang out in the kitchen with my best friends, making food people love and making life a little more fun for anyone who comes to see us.” Mosely made time to talk between chugs of the Stories coffee that fuels his long days in the kitchen. At the moment, the staff is intentionally kept to just the three of them, allowing them full control over the experience customers are getting.
“Being as small as we are, we definitely notice when we get repeat business. Seeing someone come back because they loved it, reading all of the posts where people are appreciating what we’re doing, it really sustains us. This is our baby right now, and we’re so into it and putting everything we have into making it great. Knowing people see that makes it our dream job.”
As the guys carpool home, sweaty and smelling of Debo Fries after a long day, they aren’t spending any of the energy they have left patting their own backs. It was a long road to get to this point, and while the ambitious team has been behind not only every decision, but every plate that’s been served, praise is quickly diverted to their supporters.
“The recipes were developed over a family dinner we made for Colin and Jess Duggan (owners) at Kitchen Table. That’s where we really took the time to play with the recipe and learn what was going to work. It’s one of our not-so-secret weapons that we use their popcorn spice, too. They really supported us and we learned so much there!”
“It was Jay Lund (developer at GreenSlate) who drove us to choose The Switch. We had toured it, but he came to us after the fact and really encouraged us to make it happen. He assured us that rigorous cleaning would be done regularly to keep everyone safe, that the bar would be up and running so people would have somewhere to wait and we wouldn’t have to rush the food. It felt like everything and everyone was really lining up to make sure this happened, and it’s a lot of hard work but we’ve really been embraced. It’s exactly what we hoped it could be.”
While Omaha continues to embrace the pickle-fried sandwiches (with two hands, since they are bigger than the average human face) they are also embracing three guys with a lot of positive energy and endless potential.
Dirty Birds is located at The Switch Blackstone 3618 Farnam
Sat: 11am-Until Sold Out