It's 8:50 PM on the first day of Fall and it is a breezeless 98 degrees outside as the last-minute dinner rush swarms inside Major Dave's Chicken, a fast-casual restaurant specializing in Nashville-style Hot Chicken in Pasadena that was opened by a former Marine.
"I like to call this crowd the drunk and high crowd," says 41-year-old owner "Major" Dave Caldwell, lightly chuckling in front of a deep fryer. He is staying cool, calm, and collected throughout what appears to be an anxiety-inducing situation to the average diner; even his teenage cashier seems unfazed and maintains a smile against the dozen or so hungry, wide-eyed customers of all ages and backgrounds. But none of the customers seem to mind waiting upwards of 20 minutes for their order of piping-hot, juicy, fried bird to arrive—including the table of customers who ordered an extra basket of glistening chicken after they were done with their first.
As soon as he is done sprinkling a pinch of seasoning over the last batch of chicken for the night, he walks over to my table and pulls up a seat to tell me how exactly he went from protecting embassies and engaging enemies to cooking fried chicken for a living. "I came back to California in 2012 after serving as a Marine around the world for 20 years," he tells me. "But when I started looking for work, I quickly realized that the job market was very weak here. So I had a bunch of money saved up and just opened up my own business."
Indeed, Major Dave returned home at a time when American veterans were hard-pressed to find work, some of whom had to resort to things like selling their plasma on a weekly basis to get by. The Major, it would appear, has lucked out.
From the outside, Major Dave's Chicken's generic storefront wouldn't grab your attention, no matter how many times you drive by it. Its nondescript signage and design resembles that of every other fast-casual restaurant that opens up in LA's ever-developing strip mall restaurant scene since the sit-down first In-N-Out Burger opened in 1948. To the left of it sits a Starbucks that is around four times the size of the restaurant.
His recipe yields a uniquely crispy and juicy specimen—courtesy of the beef tallow—that is a little fiery and a little sweet.
Inside the minimally designed restaurant that sits around 50 people, you would probably think that you are eating at any other generic fast food restaurant, complete with a soda fountain and self-serve plastic utensils—that is, until you smell the hypnotizing aroma of toasty beef tallow and notice the five clocks placed next to each other on the wall telling you the time of day in Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, and Pasadena. The menu is also a bit different than your typical wing joint offerings, advertising cage-free chicken and mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes.
But there is one small, discernible, oblong-shaped sign on its window by the entrance that no other food or drink establishment in the area has. It reads: "Veteran Owned Business."
The recipe comes from his father, who lived in Arizona and was the Food Service Director for the largest school district in the state. "I talked to him for years about selling as part of a restaurant concept but he never did that, so I just seized on his recipe."
That recipe yields a uniquely crispy and juicy specimen—courtesy of the beef tallow—that is a little fiery and a little sweet, thanks to a spicy glaze that Major Dave came up with after eating at "every hot chicken spot in Nashville." What makes Major Dave's chicken different than the rest, however, is its texture—snappier and leaner compared to the conventional chickens that you most likely grew up eating.
That's thanks to the free-range, local chickens that Major Dave sources from nearby Pittman Family Farms, about 100 miles north in California. "I love to eat and was interested in eating whole, less-processed foods as soon as I got out serving," Major Dave says. "So I made that my concept here."
Luckily for Major Dave, Nashville-style hot chicken had not yet arrived to Los Angeles when he first opened in 2014, making him the first hot chicken specialist in the city. (The only other establishment in town doing Nashville-style fried chicken is a food truck and opened this year.)
'I approached this thing the way I would approach anything else as a Marine: I made a plan, I came up with some possible procedures, which in this place meant recipes—and I executed. This is the Marine perspective.'
As to how his improbable fascination with good food started—remember, our nation's servicemen usually only eat things like three-year-old pizza MREs—Major Dave says it all started in his time overseas in Afghanistan.
"I was mostly in infantry units," he says. "But during my last job as Marine, I worked in Civil Affairs. So I built a court system, farms, schools, and houses in the Afghanistan provence that I was in. Because of that, I had really good food when I lived out there, especially because I lived right by the Persian border. So I ate lots of pomegranate, saffron, and amazing rice. I would go out and eat roasted goat and chickens by the side of the road with people all the time."
Now, he applies everything that he learned while being a Marine into running a smooth and successful business. "I approached this thing the way I would approach anything else as a Marine: I made a plan, I came up with some possible procedures, which in this place meant recipes—and I executed. This is the Marine perspective," he says.
"I also approach training my staff the same way I approached training myself to be in the Marine Corps. I teach them to be initiative-driven, to develop a mindset for excellence, and to care about every little detail in every single thing."
Seeing how he has come a long way from eating military meals, I ask the 20-year-veteran (who is proudly still part of the Reserves) about the worst MRE he ever ate.
"Oh man," he recalls. "Back in the 90s, there was this rectangle of egg stuff with little chunks of something in it that was supposed to be a ham omelette—that thing was atrocious. You would have to completely drown it in Tabasco hot sauce."
As I eat the very last morsel of my third drumstick with extra gusto after hearing about his MRE horror stories, I ask Major Dave about his future plans with the restaurant.
"Ultimately? 'Chipotle-fy.' I've worked every day now, with hardly a day off."