The Chicken Connection in Haverhill could almost pass for a residence if you drive too quickly down Broadway. Inside, the joint is spacious, with two seating areas featuring extra large fast food style booths well equipped to handle the physiques of the heartiest fried chicken fans. Service is over the counter, with all of the home made goods stored in a cafeteria style steam plate setup. Models of chicken pot pies tempt you as you wait in the ordering line. Chicken fingers—proclaimed to be the best on the planet, according to the Phantom Gourmet's Michael Andelman on a 6ft sign—are one of the few items cooked to order.
Not surprisingly, chicken is the main attraction at the Chicken Connection, with barbecue a mere sideline. But unlike many sideline operations, the spare ribs and pulled pork are touted as smoked. Ribs can be had as a dinner or as a $1.99 per bone add-on. Pork is available as a plate with two sides or as a sandwich. Getting back to the chicken, it's available in myriad forms: fried pieces (with good flexibility for quantity and choice of parts), boneless fingers, rotisserie chicken, grilled boneless lemon pepper chicken, chicken wings and chicken pot pies.
I visited late in the dinner rush on a weekday evening.
Chicken fingers: I actually tried the chicken fingers after the main course as a makeshift dessert, but it's best as an appetizer. I like that they're cooked to order and very thinly battered, yielding an end result that's fresh, hot, crisp, moist without being too greasy and letting the chicken be the star. Texture was fantastic; flavor was very laid back. The honey mustard dipping sauce was fairly thick, heavy on the mustard and not too sweet. The sweet and sour sauce had more of a syrup consistency and was cloyingly sweet, but had some depth of flavor that made it my preferred choice. All things considered, the chicken fingers were very good, though the best-on-the-planet claim might be a stretch.
After scanning the menu I quickly determined that the best way to sample the most "barbecue" and sides for the least investment was a pulled pork platter with a 1-bone add on, so that's exactly what I did.
Pulled pork: The dinner platter ($7.99) presented a more-than-generous serving that would be a steal if quality kept pace with quantity. Alas, this was an overcooked, oversauced batch whose few unsauced pieces had a chalky mouthfeel. I didn't detect any smoke component. Usually, such a limp, saucy brand of 'cue has no flavor under the sauce, but this one redeemed itself a little. There was very aggressive use of seasoning beneath, but not really a barbecue profile.
Ribs: The single spare rib had no redeeming qualities other than size. It was a behemoth that, like the pork, was overly coated in sauce and had no smokiness. Unlike the pork, its flavor under the hood was very neutral. Texture was all over the place, somehow delivering the unlikely blend of soggy and stiff in different bites. My take is that they overcooked it on the smoker, then undercooked it on the reheat (basically, just letting it simmer in sauce in the steam tray, but not long enough).
Fried chicken: Redemption finally came once I veered past the 'cue and into the namesake meat. My one fried chicken thigh had as perfect a texture as you could possibly ask for: thin, super crisp batter with super tender, super succulent chicken beneath. Flavor pretty much took a back seat, letting the simplicity of the chicken and the texture speak for themselves. I'd like a little more seasoning or some brine for extra flavor, but this was still a good thigh.
Meats/entrees summary: Chicken, sí. Barbecue, no.
There are no sauces on the table and no choice of sauce with the ribs and pork, which already come with more sauce—red, gloppy, slightly sweet but lacking intensity—than you'd ever need. You could probably talk the staff into some of the sweet and sour sauce as an addition. If it's possible to get the meats unsauced (not likely, given their setup), adding the sweet and sour would be a nice improvement, especially on the ribs.
Cole slaw was a unique rendition with a strong Mayo component that really tasted homemade. Mac and cheese was geared to an adult palate, with a slightly sharp cheese blend that gave a light, thin coating to the pasta. Sides overall: nothing bad, nothing legendary.
The Bottom Line
It's not a barbecue joint, so I can't come down too hard on the Chicken Connection for less than stellar ribs and pork. But trust me, they're not even worth a try. The chicken, on the other hand, is reasonably priced, made with passion and worth a look if you're in the area.
Yelp reviews of the Chicken Connection
Urban Spoon reviews of the Chicken Connection