There's no shortage of smog check stations on Richmond's 23rd Street, but on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a steady stream of cars piled into Super Star Smog's tiny parking lot, causing a minor traffic jam on the adjacent side street. On a Wednesday afternoon, an otherwise quiet industrial and residential Richmond street filled with cars, and people hastily headed into what appeared to be a warehouse (but was actually a motorcycle club). Friday during lunchtime drew the longest line of all, with a line at the Richmond Farmers Market that snaked past the other vendors.
The source of all these lines is Loaded Chickn, a fried chicken sandwich pop-up. Visiting Loaded Chickn feels like you're being inducted into a secret club. There's no Yelp page, and even typing "Loaded Chickn" into Google yields few results.
The mysterious pop-up got its start in January 2019. Sergio Gutierrez, who grew up cooking and was studying culinary arts at Contra Costa College, had broken his leg a few months back. While recovering from his injury, he was out of school, out of work, and on bed rest. He and his cousin, Luis Martinez, had been planning to start a pop-up for a while. But when they heard about the opportunity to pop up at a Shmoplife hip-hop event in Richmond, they bought a cheap used fryer on OfferUp and moved up the date of their first fried chicken pop-up, broken leg and all.
"I was still in crutches, and I was breading chicken with my crutches on the side. We just had to make it happen," Gutierrez recalled.
Loaded Chickn was an instant hit. It sold out on its first day of business, so Gutierrez and Martinez came back the next day and the day after that, selling out of chicken every day. Word began to spread via their Instagram page @loadedchickn and by word of mouth. Loaded Chickn began popping up regularly at a tattoo shop in Richmond, but the crowds grew so big that the neighbors complained and shut the pop-up down. Now, with an Instagram following of over 8,000 followers and three different locations, Loaded Chickn has become a phenomenon in Richmond.
"If you're from Richmond and you haven't tried Loaded Chickn, you're not from Richmond," Gutierrez laughed.
There's really only one thing on Loaded Chickn's menu: fried chicken, served in various permutations with slaw, cheese, and aioli. The cousins spent three months tweaking, tasting, and perfecting their chicken recipe. For efficiency's sake, they switched from using chicken thighs to using white meat chicken tenders. A secret blend of seasoning — savory, smoky, sweet, and a little spicy — gets added to the breading. The crunchy carrot-cabbage slaw is like none other, with the addition of pickled red onions, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers, cilantro, and green onions for a sharper, zestier Latin-influenced flavor. A blend of shredded Mexican cheese is tossed on top. Last, but not least, is the chipotle aioli, a recipe that Gutierrez perfected in his culinary school days. With a blend of tangy, creamy, smoky, and spicy flavor, it's the signature sauce that Loaded Chickn is known for.
"You see a twinkle in the eye when someone tries the sauce," Martinez said.
Ordering at Loaded Chickn is a little confusing for first-timers since there's no menu, but rather photos of each of the dishes without descriptions or prices. But the offerings are straightforward, and the prices reasonable. You can get your chicken, slaw, cheese, and sauce in a number of different formats: as a sandwich, as a burrito, on top of fries, or on a salad. The sandwich, served on a toasted French roll, was stuffed with juicy chicken tenders — no worrying about having too much bread and not enough chicken. The amount of slaw was just right, too, with enough acidity to cut through the greasy chicken. Ask for jalapeños if you like your sandwich spicy. The sandwich was topped with chipotle aioli, which tied all the flavors together. The fries on the side could have been crispier, but they were sprinkled with just a hint of spicy seasoning, making them hard to stop eating.
The burrito consisted of a flour tortilla stuffed with chopped-up tenders, slaw, fries, cheese, and sauce, plus the option to add in Hot Cheetos for a dollar extra. Despite having all the same ingredients as the sandwich, the burrito made for a surprisingly different eating experience. With the tenders chopped up, I got a little bit of crunchiness and juiciness in each bite. The loaded fries, which were topped with bits of chicken tenders, slaw, aioli, and cheese, would be a good option if you're sharing or don't want to get your hands messy.
If you're feeling somewhat virtuous, you can also order the salad. The salad pictured had slaw, chicken, aioli, and cheese topped with tortilla strips, black beans, and corn. I was warned that there was no corn that day, but the salad I received also was missing the tortilla strips and black beans. Without those toppings, the dish felt somewhat unfinished.
The Loaded Chickn experience isn't complete without one of their drinks, which are made with frozen fruit and fall in consistency somewhere between an agua fresca and a smoothie. The strawberry-mango blend I tried on my first visit was a bit too sugary and reminded me of a Slurpee. But on return visits, the pineapple drink and the berry drink were balanced and refreshing.
You might have to plan your schedule around your next visit to Loaded Chickn, but Gutierrez and Martinez are hoping that'll change soon. Along with their pop-ups in Richmond, they're also planning to start popping up in San Francisco and Vallejo. Pop-up life has its drawbacks, though — they've had five canopies blow away in the wind — so now they're setting their sights on starting a drive-thru chain. If all goes as planned, Loaded Chickn won't be much of a secret club anymore, and diners craving the famous sauce will be able to get it everywhere they go. But Loaded Chickn is sticking to their roots; their first location will be in Richmond or San Pablo.
"As many McDonald's there are, that's how many Loaded Chickns are gonna be out," Martinez said. "There's [gonna be] one every two or three miles from somewhere. We wanna be everywhere."