By SUSAN ERICSON
Really good fried chicken in a gas station quick-stop? Working off of a tip from a friend, PieHole made its way over the Cooper Bridge from Red Bank to Middletown, where we found Claudie’s hidden behind the pumps of a former Sunoco station, now selling fuel branded “76.”
Further concealed in the back of the convenience store, Claudie’s is owned by Craig Ford and Kathy Lowenstein and named for Ford’s mother, Claudette. Ford, who also owns the multi-location Sea Breeze Cleaners, partnered with his employee Lowenstein to create this venture about a year ago.
“Craig is the financial background here, and the chicken is mine,” Lowenstein said.
A typical array of take-out items from the menu at Claudie’s includes a bucket of fried chicken, French fries, corn fritters and apple fritters. Below, the Buffalo wings. (Photo by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
Lowenstein began working in chicken eateries when she was 17 years old, and at age 23 opened her own chicken restaurant called Chicken Town in Brick Township. “It’s still there,” she says, though she no longer owns it.
Returning to Middletown, where she grew up, and working in the dry cleaning business for Ford, Lowenstein yearned to get back to the job she knew well. She liked the idea of the bringing “southern-style, gas-station, finger-lickin’ fried chicken” concept found ubiquitously from Delaware down through Virginia back to her hometown, where she now resides with her three children.
“People are skeptical when they come in here,” she says, of the unusual pairing of quick-stop and an independently-owned, two-stool restaurant. And perhaps ironically, the convenience business isn’t doing as well as the food operation, which has chicken “flying out the window,” Lowenstein says.
“We have two pressure fryers that can fry 28 pieces of chicken in 11 minutes,” she says. “We need to get a third pressure fryer to keep up” with demand.
Claudie’s uses nonfrozen Perdue chicken that Lowenstain cuts and breads daily. “We clean and filter our oil every day, too,” she says. “If you don’t clean and change the oil often, the chicken doesn’t come out very good.”
In addition to fried chicken, Claudie’s menu includes traditional Buffalo wings made from the original recipe used at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. They’re a big seller, and Lowenstein admits she’s “nervous” about meeting demand for Super Bowl Sunday on February 1. At the moment, she expects to crank out 400 pounds of wings.
The menu also features ribs, seafood, sandwiches and an extensive list of sides, including several deep-fried vegetables such as mushrooms, cauliflower, zucchini, and onion rings.
The BBQ ribs on the menu are tender, and succulent. The coveted secret to Lowenstein’s flavorful spare rib recipe is the marinade, she tells PieHole. And the ribs are grilled, not baked, she says.
Honey-dipped fried chicken was a childhood favorite for PieHole, and Claudie’s comes pretty close to that taste memory. Each visit surprised us with the flavorful, non-greasy, remarkably crisp fried chicken – meaning the recipe is dependably good. The corn and apple fritters make for compelling fries, and come with a dipping sauce that combines sriracha and honey to finger-licking effect.
Claudie’s is at 417 Route 35, at the intersection of Cooper Road, behind a 76 gas station, and offers takeout and delivery.