|Baba’s Hot Sandwich||8/10|
|Baba’s Loaded Fries||7.5/10|
|Crinkle Cut Fries||9/10|
Located in the heart of downtown Riverside, Baba’s Chicken is the newest addition to the Riverside Food Lab. While a bit out of the way for UCR students, it is well worth the trip; the eatery features chicken sandwiches, tenders and fries. Multiple sides accompany the main showstopper: the hot chicken recipe.
It’s impossible to miss Baba’s Chicken upon entering the Food Lab, as a yellow neon light sign of a chicken spouting a short flame illuminates the front of the restaurant. As per usual, there were plenty of people roaming around, so there was a bit of a wait to order. When I eventually made it to the front of the line, I was greeted enthusiastically by the cashier and the owner.
The owner, Mahmoud Hemood, who is a third-year business administration major at UCR, wanted to make sure that UCR students got a discount. He added that while it took a while to get approved, he had ensured that campus-goers received a 10% discount at Baba’s.
After looking at the menu, which followed the same neon red and yellow color scheme as the sign, I decided to try Baba’s Hot Sandwich. The sandwich, which looked hefty even on the menu picture, was accompanied with fries and totaled $12. I was relieved at the prices — it seemed reasonable, especially compared to other restaurants in the vicinity. Monty’s Good Burger’s own burger and fries combo, for example, totals $16.
After chatting with the owner in further detail about the discount process, we grabbed our drinks and headed to the stainless steel table in front of the joint. While it took longer than expected for the food to arrive, I was surprised to see the owners waiting for my friends and I with our orders plus a basket of Baba’s Loaded Fries ($9).
I was impressed with the exceptional customer service, but even more so with the food itself. The first bite into the chicken sandwich was transcendent! The Heat Levels range from Classic to Extreme, and I had ordered the Medium to be safe. It wasn’t too spicy, but it was far from bland. In an email interview with The Highlander, Hemood said of the recipe, “Upon discovering Hot Chicken, I completely fell in love with the heat and spices associated with it.” I felt the same; the hot chicken seasoning was perfectly salty with a bit of a kick without being too overwhelming.
The chicken itself was incredible: thick, moist and tender. According to the Riverside Food Lab website, the restaurant has built a direct relationship with chicken suppliers to ensure that all of the chicken is free-range, humanely processed and hormone free. Baba’s Chicken is also Halal certified. The quality was apparent in one bite. Even the crisp was ideal. This was no accident; Hemood wrote: “I gave huge attention to … a marketing campaign that completely revolved around the customer’s demands and needs when it came to fried chicken and chicken sandwiches. I took a lot of feedback to the point of understanding exactly how crispy customers wanted their chicken.”
While fast food chicken especially can be overly greasy and way too crunchy, Baba’s chicken reached a balance. It’s not a messy sandwich by any means. The oiliness was minimal and the crisp struck the perfect ratio with the meat itself.
Although the chicken in Baba’s Hot Sandwich certainly stole the show, the other ingredients did not fall short. The fried goodness of the chicken was countered by the fluffy bun, juicy pickles and fresh coleslaw. The house sauce added some sweetness into the otherwise tangy sandwich. My one qualm with the meal was that I had opted out of the cheese, which was $0.50 extra. There was a slice of cheese in my sandwich, but it could have definitely benefited from more.
Customers have their choice between fries, a fried pickle and macaroni and cheese as sides for the sandwich. I gave the fries a try and I was not disappointed. They were hot, soft, fresh and not too salty. Preeti Juturu, a second-year public policy major, said that the macaroni and cheese “felt as though it were homemade; I wished that there were more cheese blends in the mac and cheese, because it was a bit bland. However, I enjoyed the homeyness of the dish and I think that with some more seasonings, it could be a solid side.” The Mac & Cheese, Crinkle Cut Fries, and Fried Pickles are offered as sides for $3.50 each.
In terms of beverages, Baba’s offers different flavors of craft soda ($2.50) and bottled water ($1.25). Like other menu items, the craft soda is also locally sourced. My pick, Pineapple Cream, was delicious. It was refreshing and sweet, and worked in tandem with the spiciness of the sandwich to give an overall balanced taste.
The Loaded Fries had bits of crispy chicken sprinkled in, which were an added bonus to the already tasty plate of potatoes. Baba’s Loaded Fries were also topped with coleslaw, cheese, ranch and house sauce. Although they were not my personal favorite, Samuel Harrison, fourth-year psychology major, stated, “The fries are delightfully crispy and soak up the sauce well. Paired with the chicken, these fries are the ultimate side dish!”
Baba’s Chicken is not only a testament as to how good food can be, it is a testament as to the impressive occupation UCR students undertake. Although Hemood underwent many hurdles in the process of opening his restaurant, he remarked, “The lessons here at UCR are very well worth it. Many of the concepts I learned in business helped me save a lot of money, such as inventory control methods, employee management strategies, branding, and marketing. Companies pay a lot of money in hiring people to solve these problems for them, yet here at UCR, we are given that knowledge without recognizing its true value. Part of being the new generation is that we can use concepts that have been around for many years in a much more creative way.”
Baba’s Chicken is open Monday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.