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Chicken Pharm

Where: 132 Keller Street, Petaluma

When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon. & Thurs., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fri. & Sat., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sun.

Contact: (707) 543-1278, chickenpharm.com

Cuisine: American

Price: Moderate, entrées $10-$21

Corkage: $15

Stars: **

You don’t mess with chicken in Petaluma. Not when the bird is the symbol of the quaint city, famous for boutique poultry ranches on its outskirts, and its Rocky and Rosie free-range and organic chickens in particular.

So when Chicken Pharm opened in the heart of historic downtown in November, I was thrilled for its cluck-centric menu. Buttermilk fried Rocky chicken. Roast Rocky chicken. Rocky chicken wings dressed in honey Sriracha, buffalo sauce, jalapeño sauce, or lemon-basil-salt-pepper rub. You get the idea.

Yet this bird didn’t fly. For my first visit early after the debut, dish presentation was sloppy, food arrived lukewarm, and flavors were mostly a snooze. Heartbreaking. And it wasn’t just me — social media came down hard on the poor eatery.

The owners, The Patio Group of San Diego, got the message quickly, and in January, they parted ways with opening chef Adam Mali. New general manager and supervising chef Annie Hongkham stepped in, bringing her cooking experience at Chalk Hill winery in Healdsburg, Applewood Inn of Guerneville, the Ritz Carlton Dana Point, St. Regis Monarch Beach, Mandarin Oriental San Francisco and Park Tavern San Francisco.

Voilà. The menu hasn’t changed, but the food finally flies right. Service has sped up (hot plates, thank you!) and menu prices have gone down.

Now, the Pharm is phine, meeting its goal as a neighborhood friendly social house that’s good for a satisfying meal and refreshing adult beverage.

Think cute and casual. You order at the counter, then grab a seat at the full bar or at a reclaimed wood table. There’s also a raw maple slab communal table next to a mural of chickens, and patio seating in the shadow of a parking garage.

You’ve got plenty to look at while waiting just the few minutes for food to arrive — a poster displaying various chicken breeds, jars of jawbreaker candies, an antique dog biscuit can and pig knickknacks. (Check out the restrooms, by the way — they’re really pretty, boasting reclaimed wood from Sons of Salvage of Petaluma).

Signs of history

One wall shares the space’s history, too. The building’s original tenant was Tuttle Drug Store — a pharmacy, you see — owned by Joseph Wilford Tuttle, who was born in Petaluma in 1884.

The shop operated under the Tuttle name until 2004, when the space morphed into the Petaluma Social Club restaurant.

Things still aren’t perfect. On one recent visit, the fried chicken was cooked to a shattering dry crust, though the meat remained juicy.

A meal a week later found the fry much improved — the salty batter was very crispy but still clinging to the bird ($10 for two pieces / $19 for five).

More seasoning would be welcome, though, since the chicken is still rather bland with nothing but some parsley and lemon slices on its paper lined tin tray.

Chick ‘N’ Waffles are another option. The cornmeal waffles are fluffy enough, and what’s not to love about anything drowned in maple syrup and sweet mascarpone butter ($16)?

I also appreciate the spatchcocked chicken ($11 half/$21 whole), draped in leafy herbs, roasted and served in a skillet with charred lemon and peppery greens.

The rich meat needs nothing else, except perhaps a side of cake-y cheddar cornbread smoothed with whipped orange mascarpone butter ($5).

I added mac ‘n’ cheese ($7) as well, and was pleased with the Petaluma Creamery white cheddar recipe scattered in breadcrumbs and served in a skillet.

More seasoning, meanwhile, would have made a skillet of barbecue baked beans perfect ($7).

The Rancho Gordo Napa legumes are premium, and I like that the soupy casserole boats lots of Black Pig bacon chunks sourced from West County butcher John Stewart.

Slaw and pickles

Still, get the chicken as a sandwich instead. The soft brioche bun and toppings elevate flavors and add welcome moistness from the “Original” housemade pickles and crunchy, peppercorn-spiced slaw laced with carrots and dill ($12).

“Kimchicken” ($12) packs a punch with the fried or grilled chicken spread with fiery gochujang and kimchi on a sweet, King’s Hawaiian roll.

“Hot Chicken” ($13) isn’t shy, either, zinged with extra spice in the batter, jalapeño sauce, chili-kicked coleslaw and charred shishito peppers.

Sandwiches are also a better value, since with the updated menu, sides now are included.

For the opening months, we had to pay $5 to $6 extra for housemade chips, slaw, or the excellent skinny fries served hot and crisp and showered in salt.

The sandwiches can be a steal, actually. Pharm has just rolled out a $10 weekday lunch special of any sandwich or burger from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (in theory perhaps, because when I checked my Square email receipt later, I found I’d been charged full price).

Of the non-chicken items, a PB&J is fun ($8). Thick sliced whole grain bread is fat with peanut butter and housemade jam, griddled, and served gooey warm with a bottle of cold Clover milk.

Tart greens

My group also tackled the “Cage-Free Kale” with gusto, enjoying the bright, tart mix of greens, shaved carrots, hazelnuts, firm, mild Bellwether Farms Carmody and turmeric vinaigrette ($10).

Fried food calls for a calories-be-darned dessert, and the Chicken Feed Ice Cream Sandwich ($8) brings a very tasty belly bomb. Two soft, housemade chocolate chip cookies are mounded with Three Twins salted caramel ice cream and sprinkled in caramel corn with a touch of sea salt ($8); sharing is highly recommended.

On the bar end, the Pharm covers the wine bases well enough, through the more than a dozen red and whites from California, Argentina, Spain, Italy.

Nearly 20 beers salute the local producers.

But craft cocktails are the real boozy beauties, served in Mason jars (all $12).

I probably annoyed the bartender by asking for a “BaGock” in chicken phonetics (try it), but the mix of Green Mark vodka, white peach tea and housemade lemonade is so bright and balanced that I squawk-ordered it twice.

On go-to list

The “Must be your Mama’s Car” is dang good drinking, as well, the housemade Bloody Mary mix spiked with Green Mark vodka and garnished with a dense, buttery homestyle biscuit.

I’d happily make this drink a tradition, rounded out with a tray of beer battered pickle chips sliced thin for dunking in smoked paprika aioli ($5).

If the Pharm is still finding its footing, I’ve added it to my go-to list anyway.

I almost have to return now, since on a quick stop-in for a take-out sandwich last week, the server gave me a very nice, reusable vinyl logo sack.

Bring the bag in for another take out order, he said, and I’d score 20 percent off my bill.

Eggcellent incentive!

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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