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Petaluma’s What a Chicken gets crowing praise

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What a Chicken seems to have exploded onto the Petaluma food scene, with customers giving nothing but praise for their succulent smoked chicken and super tender ribs. This can be explained by the fact that owners Cesar and Griselda Segura are not new to the culinary arena, nor are they new to Petaluma, having served up thousands of chicken and rib orders at Petaluma’s Tuesday farmers market over the past five years.

Cesar learned to cook from his mother and has been working in restaurants ever since immigrating to the U.S. from the Mexican state of Michoacán. His wife Griselda also comes from Michoacán, growing up about an hour from Cesar, although they did not meet until years later when Griselda serendipitously came into Cesar’s restaurant for dinner. She did not know it at the time, but it was love at first sight for Cesar, who even told his mother that he was going to marry Griselda someday. Ten years later, they met again, and have been together ever since.

For anyone who has tasted their chicken, the name is more than appropriate. Stylized as “What a Chicken!!,” it is arguably short a few exclamation points. The name came by way of Cesar’s father, who back in Mexico was always telling friends and family, “What a chicken!” when speaking of Cesar’s cooking.

Chicken is clearly the highlight of the menu, and can be ordered as a two-piece ($7), four-piece ($10), or eight-piece ($18) meal, which all include two sides and a drink. The chicken can be supplemented with ribs, which are fall-off-the-bone tender. Whole chickens ($14) and whole racks of ribs ($27) are also available, which make for a great supplement to home-cooked lunches and dinners throughout the week.

Sides include Griselda’s potato salad, fresh coleslaw, green salad, rice, beans (both black and refried), and tortillas, of which roughly 500 are made each day by hand in the back. We have tried and enjoyed them all, mixing and matching to come up with unique flavor combos.

The large jugs filled with vibrant colored drinks that normally adorn a Mexican restaurant’s counter tops do not usually get my attention. However, because What a Chicken’s meals include a drink, I gave the Pineapple a try and was thoroughly impressed, and have ordered it again with each visit. The horchata, which is usually made from rice milk, cinnamon, and other spices and is a Mexican restaurant standard, is always on tap, with the rest of the “Aguas Frescas” changing regularly. The watermelon and hibiscus were also excellent.

What a Chicken opened to great fanfare, due in large part to Griselda keeping the media regularly informed of their progress. Within two weeks of their soft opening, What a Chicken held a grand opening, offering free food for an entire Sunday afternoon. I stopped in and met several people who were not only impressed with the food and service, but thought it was very classy of Cesar and Griselda to introduce their new restaurant with a free lunch.

We have tried the chicken, steak, fish and shrimp tacos on two occasions now, both unaltered, and stripped down, without onions and salsa. All were excellent, but we seemed to keep going back to the fish tacos, likely because they are made from sea bass, as opposed to the cheaper fish usually used by other restaurants.

The chicken taco also caught our attention because it tastes different than that used in the chicken meals. Cesar explained that although he uses the same chicken, marinade and barbecue, the meat for the tacos are boneless and skinless thighs, so probably absorbs the marinade differently.

“We love serving Petaluma,” Griselda said. “Everyone is so supportive, and almost immediately upon joining the farmers market, our regular customers were constantly telling us about possible restaurant locations in Petaluma.”

Eventually, they found their current location, with the help of a regular customer’s suggestion. Wanting to know more about their business, the owner of the building actually visited the Tuesday farmers market to try Cesar and Griselda’s food and talk with some of their customers. Clearly impressed, she had no qualms about having What a Chicken open in her building, located at 706 E. Washington Street, kitty-corner from Whole Foods.

Although seating is limited, the vibe inside What a Chicken is festive, helped by excellent music, so nobody seems to mind the tight quarters. With three visits under our belts, we have never had trouble finding a table, with many customers picking up food for home. There is additional seating in the back of the restaurant. Parking can be a different story so I suggest parking around the corner, where spots are plentiful.

Cesar and Griselda still plan on offering their chicken and ribs at the Tuesday farmers market, as well as adding the Wednesday night downtown market, once that re-opens for the summer.

Even being quite familiar with What a Chicken through their offerings at the farmers market, it was still amazing to see how much excitement there was about this restaurant opening. Clearly, Petalumans love Cesar and Griselda’s food, and are often heard saying: “What a chicken!!”