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Billy's Fried Chicken mixes Asian influence with gluten-free bliss

As restaurant restrictions ease, the coronavirus pandemic’s effects linger in the form of fried chicken.

Ideal takeout fare, the food has proliferated around the region, nowhere more prominently than in Ashland, which notably lacks a nationwide fast-food chain dedicated to chicken. So the town’s chefs filled the void, ramping up service at Bird & Rye, offering “Fried Chicken Friday” at the gourmet haven Hither, founding a new joint dubbed “Friar Clucks” and reallocating space formerly assigned to the Pacific Rim for fried chicken.

Billy’s Fried Chicken is the latest venture of prolific Southern Oregon restaurateur Billy Harto, who’s operated Thai Pepper for more than 30 years. Once the Pan-Asian fixture’s main kitchen and dining room overlooking Ashland Creek were remodeled last year, Harto turned his attention to transforming the Satay Bar upstairs into a concept that had proven popular — and sustainable — throughout the pandemic.

Asian influences distinguish Billy’s from other eateries specializing in the American icon. And continuing Thai Pepper’s longtime reputation for catering to special diets, Harto developed nearly all of Billy’s recipes with gluten-free ingredients.

“We didn’t necessarily set out to be a ‘gluten-free restaurant,’ but after experimenting with these flours at Thai Pepper, Billy found that they were pretty undetectable substitutes that even non-gluten free guests enjoyed,” said Harto’s daughter, Amanda, who plays a key role in the restaurants’ management. “Now we are known by many with gluten and other food sensitivities as a safe place to come eat and wanted to extend that idea to Billy’s.

“We want people to know we have good fried chicken that happens to be gluten-free, rather than the other way around.”

Billy’s opened just a couple of weeks before Oregon’s November “freeze” on indoor restaurant dining. Preferring to sample the chicken on site, rather than take it to go, which compromises the texture of fried foods in particular, I bided my time to give Billy’s a thorough review.

There’s often a giveaway in gluten-free foods. But Billy’s batters aren’t in any way lacking. Bob’s Red Mill brand is a major component of the buttermilk fried chicken, said Amanda Harto. And Billy’s Japanese and Korean recipes are prepared with those cuisines’ traditional potato and rice starches. The only prominent item containing regular wheat flour are Billy’s biscuits.

There’s no deprivation in skipping biscuits at Billy’s, which offers such diverse sides as jasmine rice and radish kimchi, or truffle fries and coleslaw. A thoughtfully constructed green salad numbered among Billy’s specials, and vegetarian and vegan diners can substitute fried tofu on any of the chicken platters.

I couldn’t pass up the chance to try all of Billy’s recipes — buttermilk, Korean and Japanese — on a single plate. The sampler platter comes with the choice of two small side dishes for $13. Because my partner and I also had our eyes on the popcorn chicken with truffle fries ($10), we selected kimchi and coleslaw as the sides with our sampler. The green salad with fried parsnip chips ($9) provided another vegetable preparation.

Plenty of mix-and-match options are available at Billy’s, which also prices its chicken by six- and 12-piece assortments from $24 to $40, including side dishes. There’s also a “plate” ($13) with a choice of white or dark meat and two small sides, along with a boneless chicken fillet sandwich ($13) that comes with one small side dish.

I usually prefer dark meat, but particularly when the popcorn chicken was purported as breast meat. Fans of bone-in chicken, however, should note that Billy’s Asian recipes feature boneless cuts.

And orders come in cardboard boxes, whether they’re carried out or eaten on the premises. Staff offer plates, flatware and cloth napkins for guests dining in, and we divided side dishes and chicken between them. Surrendering to the popcorn chicken’s appeal straight from the box, however, we eagerly dipped it and the accompanying thin, crispy fries in Billy’s chipotle aioli.

Although the popcorn pieces ranged in size, succulent chicken was prominent under every bit of buttermilk batter. And juices oozed from the whole, buttermilk-battered thigh, which was generously portioned.

A bit smaller, for lack of bones, the Japanese chicken exuded even more umami from seasonings of soy, sake and ginger. And the Korean chicken’s quintessential gochujang chile paste lent an intriguing, slightly spicy, faintly fermented counterpart to the other savory flavors.

I love the combination of Billy’s Korean chicken and Cindy Yi’s locally made radish kimchi, which I also eat at home. My partner, however, only needed a single bite of the Korean recipe to satisfy his curiosity before concentrating on the other two.

The salad was a welcome contrast to such rich, distinctive flavors. We didn’t even need so many blue cheese crumbles complementing the slightly sweet and delightfully crunchy strips of fried parsnip. Tossed in a light vinaigrette, the greens were fresh and vibrant, composing one of the more enjoyable restaurant salads I’ve had this year. Adding chicken to the salad costs $4 extra.

With a well-appointed bar, Billy’s serves such artisan cocktails as pear-infused Moscow mules, coconut-lime mojitos and pineapple margaritas, along with wine, beer and sake. Fittingly for a chicken joint, there also are lemon and limeades, even pomegranate flavored, as well as peach sweet tea and Arnold Palmers, from $4 to $5.

Located at 82 N. Main St., Billy’s Fried Chicken is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. View the menu at friedchickenashland.com or call 541-708-6744.

Tempo Tidbits

A new restaurant slated for the former Howiee’s on Front has an industry veteran specializing in Asian and Pacific island cuisines for its chef.

Brandt Nakamura was hired by The Ghostlight Playhouse, which purchased the former Howiee’s location on East Main Street last year to showcase Randall Theatre Company. A restaurant and bar managed by the nonprofit Ghostlight is planned for the adjacent space whose entrance is on Front Street.

“We’re looking to bring a fun, new energy to downtown Medford and create a place where we can all get together and experience something exciting and new,” says Nakamura.

Nakamura brings 14 years of hospitality experience — spanning kitchen, dining room, bar service and management — to the venture. His cooking style is rich and diverse, according to Ghostlight’s directors. Raised on Hawaii’s Big Island, Nakamura cites such influences as the American South, Pacific Rim/Northwest, French, Italian, Korean, Szechuan, Cantonese, Thai and Japanese. A graduate of Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Nakamura had his first local restaurant job was at the town’s erstwhile Munchie’s.

“I’ll be putting my own take on American bar and comfort food,” says Nakamura. “I’m an Asian-American by way of Hawaii and Oregon, and I enjoy representing all of that on a plate.”

A musician, Nakamura has performed with the Hawaiian band Ha’ena, been a featured tenor in Southern Oregon Repertory Singers (SORS) and appeared in several musicals on the Randall stage. He also competed in 2011 on the Fox series “MasterChef.”

The Ghostlight restaurant aims to open for takeout and patio dining later this spring, with indoor dining beginning this summer. See ghostlightplayhouse.com for showtimes. Ghostlight entertainment also is offered via livestream on its platform.

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Order beer at Medford’s Common Block Brewing Company and raise funds for local residents displaced by last year’s wildfires.

Beers with Benefits pledges $1 for every pint of the pub’s Rally Up Red Ale purchased through May 31. Proceeds go toward United Way’s Fire Relief Fund, which has assisted nearly 800 families, individuals and businesses with immediate needs. United Way now is focusing on the next three years of rebuilding efforts with a fundraising goal of $500,000 each year. Read more at commonblockbrewing.com/beers-with-benefits-supporting-united-way

Located at 315 E. Fifth St., Common Block is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

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Wildfire relief efforts also received a boost from 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery in Medford.

Nearly $10,000 was raised from sales of 2Hawk’s 9-1-1 c.2 wine, a red blend released in October and priced at $30 per bottle. The estate’s owners this week announced their donation to United Way’s recovery fund and thanked the community for its support.

A limited supply remains of the wine, comprising 38 percent cabernet sauvignon, 32 percent merlot and 30 percent cabernet franc harvested in 2018. Purchase at 2hawk.wine, email info@2hawk.wine or call 541-779-9463.

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Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow @the.whole. dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.

Popcorn chicken comes with truffle fries at Billy’s Fried Chicken in Ashland. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Craft cocktails, including a coconut-lime mojito, are served at Billy’s Fried Chicken in Ashland.{ }