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Roll Call

A Tale of Two Chickens: Capitol Dining Remains Separate and Unequal

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
House fried chicken should look familiar to fans of the Members’ Dining Room and the Capitol Market carryout.

We hate to break it to the hungry, huddled masses that routinely seek out House side eateries for sustenance, but when it comes to that guiltiest of pull-apart pleasures, fried chicken, you should be calling “fowl.”

Mind you, it’s not that the picnic staple is not available to rank-and-file patrons in either chamber. But the dining experience varies wildly depending on where you are perched.

The Golden Brown Standard

To be fair, the governing bodies in charge of catering to each side of the Capitol blatantly advertise that they’re serving competing foodstuffs.

“House Fried Chicken” is all you’ll get from the Capitol Market carryout in the basement of the Capitol. Same deal in the more polished Members’ Dining Room, which actually only features the chamber-specific bird on Wednesdays.

“Senate Fried Chicken,” on the other hand, is served daily within the easy-to-peek-over walls of the always-buzzing Dirksen Southside Buffet.

New York-based Restaurant Associates, part of the Compass Group North America’s hospitality services conglomerate, handles the feeding and watering of both sides of the Capitol, albeit via two independent and evidently completely uncommunicative administrative operations. Questions about the recipe development and sales performance of the dueling poultry offerings yielded little more than robotic, non-insights — “The fried chicken recipe in the Senate restaurants was developed by Restaurant Associates,” was the only relevant bit of information extracted after several rounds of calls and emails to Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Eva Malecki — and corporate dissembling.

But here’s what we do know.

The House fried chicken is good. We’d go so far as to say very good.

The portions delivered to patrons in the Members’ Dining Room provide two pieces of chicken, a choice of white meat, dark meat, or a mix, escorted by complementary vegetables (sweet potato puree and steamed broccoli). The bird is lightly floured, which robs the meal of any signature crunch, but also probably spares diners a few unnecessary ounces of superfluous carbs. The meat, though adequately tender, does not bleed the juicy runoff of its meticulously brined brethren. The combined product is pleasant and perfectly filling, but it always benefits from a few squirts of the House-supplied Texas Pete hot sauce.

Southside’s fried chicken is a totally different animal.

Even a blind man would notice that the Senate’s signature bird is easily two to three shades darker than its House counterpart.

The magnificent crust — bearing its clearly imprinted patchwork of seasonings like a badge of honor — shrouds the underlying chicken in a craggy shield of bronze, a shell that shatters with an audible crunch when pierced. Once exposed, the aromatic flesh is easily separated from bone via the forceful yank of opposing digits or a gnashing of bared, saliva-slicked incisors. The juicy spoils are then ushered forth into the gaping maws of Southside diners who, at least in that intoxicating moment, are more primal urge than reason and virtue.

White or dark, Senate bird delivers flavor in spades. Each bite is infused with proprietary spices, their essence penetrating to the core of every piece. A lifelong thigh and leg man, Southside has made me a convert. Their breast meat wants not for juiciness or finesse; paprika and garlic gush through in every electrifying bite, a testament to the loving attention heaped on each batch of deep-fried fowl by the Southside kitchen.

And, oh yeah, it’s all you can eat.

But don’t take our word for it.

We spotted former Sens. John B. Breaux, D-La., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., plotting strategy with some fellow lobbyists at Southside on the same day the White House finally rolled out its long-awaited 2014 budget blueprint. The true Southerners, who are no strangers to fine dining courtesy of their plum positions in Congress and ongoing star turns on K Street, both had remnants of devoured bird on their plates (spotted drumstick bones on each; we checked).

On the plus side, an order of House fried chicken from the Capitol Market is roughly half the price of a seat at the Southside buffet (less than $7 to $16, respectively).

And, at least according to Dan Weiser, spokesman for the Office of the House Chief Administration Officer, House diners are pretty loyal to their bird, estimating that said chicken outsells other daily specials 2-to-1.

Customers also seem to appreciate the utilitarianism, if not the panache, of House dining.

“This room is just so unattractive. It just shows a complete lack of aesthetics — but it’s faster to come over to this side, you know?” a colleague overheard congressional staffers waiting to spirit away a meal from the Capitol Market. “Over there, they’re just so gosh darn slow.”

A Soupçon of Accommodation

Both chambers have, rather famously, been serving similar bean soup for well more than 100 years. (More on that in a moment.)

But there’s another battle brewing among those who crave less salty slurping opportunities.

An aide to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee told CQ Roll Call that panel Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, spent the past few years trying to convince Restaurant Associates to return low-sodium soup options to Senate eateries. Weiser confirmed that low-sodium soups are offered across the House dining operations. But, for whatever reason, Senate restaurants dumped those dietary alternatives a while back.

Harkin’s efforts have paid off in the restoration, albeit perhaps only temporarily, of low-sodium soups to the Senate dining rotation. The HELP committee aide said the alternative soup roster — including black bean, French onion, potato-leek, basil-tomato bisque and Italian wedding — has been served out of the Dirksen Coffee Bar since mid-March, adding that Restaurant Associates would be monitoring their sales before making a final determination on whether to expand, or even retain, their availability.

Malecki declined to comment on the future of the low-sodium soups, confirming only that they had, in fact, been added to the coffee shop carte.

And, for the record, it’s been our experience that the House’s version of bean soup — buttery stock chock full of tender navy beans, savory onions and chunks of luscious pork (coarsely chopped, fat-ringed swine) — is superior to what gets ladled out in the Senate.

So they’ve got that going for them.

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