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Photograph by Troy Bayless

Arena Food-Hall: The Coop's outdoor seating area soaks up sun and Sharks fans.

Taking Flight

Sonoma Chicken Coop draws a crowd during sports events, but its succulent spit-roast is the real goal

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

WE WERE nearly forced to cancel our dinner plans that night, having forgotten that a Sharks game was slated for Saturday evening. The fans beat us to all the good parking places and then to our chosen restaurant. Fans clad in jerseys and caps arrived at the Sonoma Chicken Coop en masse and without mercy. They darted in and out, balancing drinks and plates of food as they made their way to tables in the dining room.

The Sonoma Coop is a high-tone fast-food concept and, according to the proprietor, took wing in San Jose (not Sonoma), within blocks of Compaq Arena (now HP Pavilion). For reasonable prices, we dined on high-quality victuals served in a fast-food method. Orders are placed at one counter, and food, packed onto trays, is picked up at another. It's a smart idea, even if you're not short on time.

At the door, I hesitated, then took a deep breath and got in line along with everybody else. My guests searched for a table. When our numbers were called, I grabbed our food, then found myself looking for holes in the crowd and, once I found one, running like a halfback to gain a few yards. The pace isn't always as hectic, or the dining room as crowded. The very next night at the same time, few tables were occupied.

The Coop sports a faux Southwestern décor that instills a false sense of fashion chic. Until we took a closer look and realized that the plates were plastic and flimsy, and the furniture not much better, we'd been lulled into thinking we were someplace special. But there's nothing special about the setting here. It's clear that the main part of the budget is set aside for fresh, high-quality ingredients, readily appreciated when digging into the grub. That's what's special.

The kitchen puts out a tantalizing variety of popular foods, from salads to pizza, steak and spit-roasted chicken. We opened with delicious wine-grilled artichokes ($4.99) split down the middle, seasoned heavily with herbs and served with a tame aioli. With fingers fully engaged, my guest eagerly dispatched the hearts. By the time we received our White Hot Mozzarella ($4.50), the pesto-and-cheese-layered crostini were lukewarm, though the flavors stimulated the palate with aroma and basil.

The Coop specialty is the spit-roasted chicken ($6.50 quarter; $7.99 half), so good and priced so reasonably that we agreed it would make an ideal takeout item. The roasted young chickens are so succulent, they trickle with natural juices. Of the three sauces, I enjoyed the warm lemon vinaigrette the best. Fragrant virgin olive oil, capers, crushed lemon and garlic veiled the moist quarter bird. The barbecue sauce had a good liquid texture but was just too sweet, as was the sugary wine sauce served with the less than tender Wine Country Duck ($9.99).

From the Pasta and Pans section, we sampled the Red Hot Prawns ($8.99), which posed the question, Would you order it again? Even though the prawns were fresh and juicy, and the sauce Creole spicy and rich, I wouldn't order the prawns over the chicken.

In honor of Sharks fans, we spooned the Chocolate Hockey Puck (all desserts $4.50), a torte brimming with rich mousse and streaked with a sweet red, black and blue sauce. We also sampled the Banana Phyllo Sundae, a complete success if only the pastry crust, housing the bananas in intoxicating rum glaze, had not been so tough on the fork.

I will return to the Sonoma Chicken Coop, but I'll be judicious about when. I like to eat without being rushed, pushed or gawked at. I do like the quality and prices of the food, especially the chicken, but not the delivery system. Something needs to be worked out so people can pick up food without cleats and shoulder pads.

Sonoma Chicken Coop
Address: 31 N. Market St., San Pedro Square, San Jose
Phone: 408.287.4098
Hours: 11am-9pm Mon-Thu, until 10pm Fri, until 8pm Sat

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From the February 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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