Published October 13. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 10:47AM
My father drove the same exact five-mile route between our home and his business for more than 20 years. At a certain juncture, he would pass a small hospital on one side of Edgefield Avenue and, directly across the street, a family-owned funeral parlor.
One day, not long before he retired, dad came home and said, "After driving past those two buildings about 12,000 times, it occurs to me: I think there's something highly suspicious about a mortuary directly across the street from a hospital. I'll bet there's a tunnel that connects them."
The point, he said, wasn't the horror film-esque scenario implied by a shady agreement between health care professionals and embalmers but, rather, it's funny how we might go by something specific every day for decades - and never really take note of it.
So it is with me and the Neon Chicken on Howard Street in New London. It's a small dine-in/take-out establishment in a picturesque business complex featuring marinated rotisserie chicken, plate lunches, fresh vegetables and sandwiches.
Who knows how many times I've cruised by it - and for no reason I can put my finger on, I'd never been there.
Last week, for the first few times since I moved here 14 years ago, I dined in the Neon Chicken - and those visits won't be the last.
This is a pleasant, rewarding food option operated by friendly folks who know what they're doing. Inside is a cafeteria-style counter with hot entrees and sides, next to an order-out/cashier station. Eat-in tables extend in an L-shape around two sides of the room, which was tastefully decorated in subtle Halloween touches. There are also a few picnic tables in a strip of lawn out front.
I intended to try the chicken, of course, but then some regular specials caught my eye: roast loin of pork, meat loaf and carved turkey breast ($10.48 each includes two sides). The meat loaf whispered most seductively - and it was a good choice.
The mixture was moist and flavorful, with a slight hint of green onion, and the exterior bark was a wonderful contrast - particularly since the whole thing was ladled with a rich brown gravy. I was well pleased; if the Neon People offered a meat loaf sandwich, I might move in. My sides were adequate; the green beans were fresh and crisp but a bit bland, and the mac 'n' cheese covered all the basics without entering into the modern-day territory of "designer mac" dishes that include squab or butterscotch or whatever.
My wife, who eschews meat including chicken and fish, was astounded to learn that the Neon Chicken boasts several variety of fresh vegetables - and features that rarest of New London dining opportunities: a vegetable plate (choice of three with cornbread for $8.24). She decided to drop by one evening and pick up our dinner.
From a large and rotating variety, she tried rice pilaf (fluffy, flavorful and full of carrots, peas, green beans, corn and onion); mashed butternut squash (creamy, with a hint of autumnal spices that might have been a cinnamon/nutmeg fusion); and diced mixed vegetables (broccoli, carrots and cauliflower - all fresh and redolent of their own seductive powers). The portions were substantial and augmented by a thick, buttery loaf of cornbread.
I'd requested the signature rotisserie chicken - a breast and thigh plate ($9.45, two sides), but they actually sent home a wing and leg platter ($8.24 - we were charged for the wing and leg, for the record). No worries.
The connective pieces were quite small but very tasty, imbued with a smoky rotisserie flavor. Too, the crisp exterior skin of the bird had a carmelized sweetness and a texture as thin as brittle rice paper.
I wanted to experience more of the chicken, so I stopped by a third time, this time sampling a tangy, pulled chicken-style po-boy ($6.44). Served on a small French loaf of little distinguishing flavor, the construct was nonetheless wonderful because of the bountiful mound of torn, tender, breast and thigh meat anchored in a thick barbecue sauce with hints of sugar and even maple. It was simple but beautiful.
The Neon Chicken also offers baby back ribs - I'm still searching for a definitive New England version of this elusive prize - as well as pulled pork and chicken salad sammiches.
An on-site bakery provides desserts, and there are numerous full-meal salads worth investigating.
I'm glad I finally found the Neon Chicken. It's a good thing to have in the neighborhood.