The Merrimack Valley’s Original Fast Food Sandwich: The Chicken Barb

The quintessential character of every city emerges from its food and its stories. And there’s no food story quite like that of the Merrimack Valley’s chicken barb. Before the age of drive-thrus and global fast food empires, every region prided itself on unique, flavorful dishes that captured the local spirit. The chicken barb is one such delicacy that tells a story of a time gone by.

The Birth of a Local Delight

Chicken burger

Fast food before the 1950s wasn’t the ubiquitous experience we know today. Each city had its flavor, and Methuen and Lawrence in the Merrimack Valley were no exception. Local legend traces the origins of the chicken barb back to 1933, at Herman Marggraf’s Tally Ho Inn in Methuen. It was a time of financial distress nationwide, but the end of Prohibition brought about a new age of establishments. The Tally Ho wasn’t just a restaurant; it was a community gathering place.

  • Unique Atmosphere: The Tally Ho managed to cater to a wide array of clientele. From the men at the front bar to the mixed groups in the back enjoying food, dance, and the jukebox, this place had it all.
  • The Barb’s Rise to Fame: What made the Tally Ho so popular wasn’t just its ambiance but its mouthwatering chicken barb. Soon, neighboring eateries took inspiration and began crafting their versions of this beloved sandwich.

An Empire on the Rise: The Bungalow’s Story

Chiken burger home

South of Lawrence’s Essex Street, the “Bungalow” started its journey in the 1940s, not as a brick and mortar eatery, but from a converted 1920s-era car. This chuck wagon became a landmark spot for theatergoers from Broadway’s Theater Row.

  • Joe Gile’s Impact: Connie Gile recalls how her late husband, Joe Gile, began his culinary journey at the Bungalow, eventually buying it and reshaping it. Joe’s meticulous approach to perfecting the chicken barb formula led to immense popularity. Joe Gile’s Bungalow, having moved to a more permanent location, was a beacon for the late-night crowd, offering comfort food after a night out.
  • End of an Era and a New Beginning: Tragically, Joe Gile’s Bungalow succumbed to a fire in 1977. But, as the saying goes, legends never truly die. Gile persisted in making his iconic barbs in different places. In 1997, partnering with his son-in-law, Steve Alfano, they introduced Sutton Square Grille in North Andover, serving over 500 chicken barbs on its opening day.

Protecting the Recipe: A Culinary Secret

Hot Burger

The immense popularity of the Marggrafs’ and Gile’s chicken barbs led to their recipes becoming some of the most closely guarded secrets in the Merrimack Valley. Rumors abound of covert operations to snatch these recipes, reminiscent of tales surrounding the Coca-Cola formula. Steve Alfano became the keeper of the Bungalow’s recipe, ensuring its authenticity for future generations.

  • A Living Legacy at Norm’s White Horse: Though establishments like the Tally Ho Inn and Joe Gile’s Bungalow have become a part of history, the chicken barb legacy lives on at Norm’s White Horse in Methuen. Now managed by Diane Frechette, the restaurant offers a nostalgic journey back in time, serving the traditional barb to loyal customers.
  • Evolving Yet Staying True: Frechette, while respecting the tradition, isn’t shy about experimenting. Whether it’s a pesto barb on focaccia bread or other innovative takes, the essence of the chicken barb remains intact.

The Chicken Barb Experience

For locals and visitors alike, the allure of the chicken barb isn’t just its rich history but the unique gastronomic experience it offers. Uninitiated folks might walk into a local diner expecting a traditional barbecued chicken sandwich but are pleasantly surprised with the savory and tangy treat that awaits them.

The Culinary Concoction: A Closer Look

Though named “barbecue”, the preparation of the chicken barb is quite different. The technique involves pressure-cooking chicken with a proprietary mix of seasonings. After cooling, the meat is deboned, shredded, and simmered again in the rich broth. This process gives it a texture and flavor reminiscent of pulled pork.

  • Serving the Barb: The meat is served on a toasted roll with lettuce and a hefty serving of mayonnaise. This combination makes the chicken barb an ultimate comfort food, appeasing both gourmet lovers and those with simpler tastes.
  • The Secret Ingredient: What sets each chicken barb apart is the secret seasoning blend. While the basic method remains consistent, each restaurant adds its own touch, making the experience unique at every establishment.

First Bites and Lifelong Memories

Mentioning the chicken barb often stirs emotions among locals. For many, it’s not just a sandwich but a basket of memories. Whether it’s recalling where they had their first bite or reminiscing about late-night trips to Joe Gile’s Bungalow, the chicken barb holds a special place in many hearts.

  • A Sandwich of Emotions: For locals, the chicken barb isn’t just about taste; it’s about reliving cherished moments. Some remember bringing home an extra sandwich as a peace offering after a late night, while others recall the warm feeling of sharing a barb with loved ones.
  • A Cultural Icon: Much like the salty expletive “mingya” or the card game “45s”, the chicken barb stands as an emblem of local culture. Those outside the Methuen/Lawrence area may find the sandwich mysterious, but for the residents, it’s a piece of their shared heritage.

The Legacy Continues: Modern Day Chicken Barb

Home burger chicken

While many original establishments serving the chicken barb have shuttered, the sandwich’s legacy persists, thriving in the hearts of the Merrimack Valley residents and its loyal diners.

The Barb’s Global Entry

With globalization, foods from every corner of the world have become accessible. As people from the Merrimack Valley moved or traveled, they took their love for the chicken barb with them, introducing it to diverse audiences.

  • Adaptations and Innovations: While the traditional chicken barb remains a favorite, new versions are appearing on global menus. From spicy Asian renditions with sriracha mayo to Mediterranean variations with tzatziki and olives, the chicken barb is seeing a culinary evolution.
  • Food Festivals and Events: Celebrating its heritage, Merrimack Valley now hosts annual chicken barb festivals. These events not only offer various versions of the beloved sandwich but also act as a cultural exchange, uniting people over food.

Preserving the Barb Tradition

Ensuring that the legacy of the chicken barb continues is crucial. Many locals and restaurant owners are making concerted efforts to keep the tradition alive.

  • Documenting Recipes: While the exact recipes remain guarded secrets, many chefs are recording the basic preparation methods to ensure future generations can recreate the barb.
  • Chicken Barb in Culinary Schools: Recognizing its cultural significance, some local culinary schools have introduced modules dedicated to the chicken barb, educating budding chefs about its rich history and technique.

Final Words

In an era dominated by chain restaurants and globalized cuisines, the chicken barb serves as a nostalgic reminder of Merrimack Valley’s rich culinary heritage. A bite of this sandwich is not just a culinary delight but a journey through time, connecting generations with its savory history. Whether you’re a native or a visitor, make it a mission to experience this iconic sandwich. It’s more than food; it’s a piece of Merrimack Valley’s soul on a plate.