The first time I saw the road sign I almost swerved off Interstate 75. Our highway exits are littered with fast-food conformity — Mickey Ds, BK, T-Bell, the usual — but this was different, a magical anomaly, perhaps even a puckish trick of the light on weary eyes.
Chick-fil-A Dwarf House!!!
The !!! are my excitable emphasis, and with good reason. This deliriously named restaurant, located in a blue-collar suburb of Atlanta, sounded utterly bizarre and politically incorrect. And it also hinted at some sort of otherworldly Clucky Circus Town, a funky, forbidden land where things had gone sumptuously, crispily wrong.
Plus of all the fast-food staples, Chick-fil-A has one of the most limited, unimaginative menus. And now they were going rogue?
I had to keep driving that first time, late for a date in the ATL. But after that initial tease, whenever I took my wee daughters to a Chick-fil-A in St. Petersburg — like most parents of preteens, about 35 visits a week (don't judge, don't judge) — I would daydream about those fantastical poultry dwarves. It became not unlike the plotline in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, although a far more sober quest.
When I finally ventured up that way again, a road trip from Tampa Bay to the Smoky Mountains, I made sure to set aside proper time for investigative journalism/gorging at this imagined fast-food Valhalla.
It turns out there are a few Dwarf Houses in the Atlanta area, not to mention something called Truett's Grill — all variations on the familiar Chick-fil-A brand, which recently surpassed KFC as the nation's top chicken chain. However, born in 1946, the Hapeville Dwarf House was the very first one, a.k.a. the genesis of Chick-fil-A deliciousness.
It was my only choice.
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A few miles off I-75, the Dwarf House reveals itself in a quietly dramatic way: squatty, misshapen, a four-pronged oddity that includes a diner, a fairy tale brick facade, a regular Chick-fil-A and spiraling tendrils of drive-through lanes — the whole thing open around the clock except, of course, for Sunday; we all know that buzzkill drill.
The Dwarf House's quirkiest exterior characteristics are a miniature door, presumably for the titular little people, a theme loosely tied to Snow White. And on a bench in front of the door sits the golden statue of Georgia boy and local hero Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, still alive at 93. He's a selfie magnet.
Inside, you'll find a regular Chick-fil-A walk-up counter (and typical nugget-heavy menu) with a fast-foody dining room. But around the corner is where it gets good: a long, slightly raised diner counter in front of a bustling open kitchen plus a row of comfy booths. Here the menu includes such things as the Midnight Sandwich (a ham and cheese concoction) and coconut icebox pie, the latter homemade on the premises.
The Dwarf House section looks like an ornate red Denny's. Such is the curiosity factor, and the resulting questions, that quick free tours are offered, where you'll get a hat, a copy of the original menu and fried fun facts, such as this tidbit: At this, the birthplace of Chick-fil-A, they initially did not serve much chicken. Truett Cathy wouldn't "invent" his signature chicken-breast sandwich until the '60s. That said, in 1946, when it was simply called the Dwarf Grill, you could get a "deluxe steak," lettuce included, for 30 cents.
But I didn't want the chicken-breast sandwich. Or a deluxe steak. Or nuggets drenched in puddles of that life-affirming Chick-fil-A dipping sauce. I wanted different, that's why I was here, and that's what I got from my Southern-drawling servers.
Behold, the sheer artery-clogging glory of the Hot Brown!!! The !!! again are my excitable emphasis, and with good reason. Served in a hot casserole dish, lean white meat chicken is drenched in layers of gravy, mashed potatoes, cheese, bacon. It's framed by toasted points of white bread. I think I hoovered that thing — which costs $8.75, side salad included — in two bites.
There are a dozen-plus sides available. I opted for the fried okra (pretty good . . . for okra), the toothache-rich sweet potato souffle (a crunchy sugar rush) and porky collard greens (slightly bitter, which I like). For dessert, I slammed my grinning mug into that dense coconut ice box pie, which rivaled the Hot Brown in sin and time consumed.
Oh, there are other variations on the usual menu, which here wrangles those misspelling cows to their tasty fates: the Giant Burger and the Dwarf Burger, an array of salty meats for breakfast.
There's also a gooey grilled cheese sandwich and even gooier macaroni and cheese. I'll be back for those someday. Of course, it'll be hard passing up a piping Hot Brown in a Dwarf House, a series of words I just can't write enough.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.