It’s a bold claim. And in a city so protective of the barm, we’re about to commit abject blasphemy.
Because this sandwich doesn’t come in a soft, white bap, nor fashionable sourdough, but in a US-style biscuit, more traditionally a vessel for mopping up ‘gravy’ (that’s another story) hailing from the southern states and which predates the American Civil War. Miners would eat them as ours would eat pasties, as a rib-sticking carb to keep them going all day.
Gab and Dustin, who are behind the sandwich pop-up Cardinal Rule, currently holed up in the kitchen of Northern Quarter favourite Ply, arrived in Manchester last year from Richmond, Virginia, and found that the ‘biscuit’, something both had grown up with, was both unknown and unavailable in the UK.
The pair chose Manchester to settle after Dustin took a trip here in 2017 and fell in love with our Rainy City. At the time, he was visiting Cloudwater with the brewery he co-founded in Virginia, the Veil Brewing Company (Gab was from the beer business too, working for the world renowned craft brewery Stone). They both came the next year for the Indy Man Beer Con, and it sealed the deal.
What they don’t know about biscuits isn’t worth knowing. Having also lived in Austin, Texas, Gab was schooled in the art of making this pastry off-shoot both at the city’s culinary school and at the legendary Bird Bird, a biscuit and fried chicken hole-in-the-wall joint in this most hipster of US cities.
At one time, Bird Bird was number five on the top-rated places to eat in the whole of the United States on ratings site Yelp in 2022. So we’re getting the absolute real deal here in MCR, direct from RVA.
One thing we need to get out of the way is that these are not scones – ‘not a f**king scone’ as their Insta profile reads.
“You can’t be from the south in America and not have an intimacy with biscuits,” Dustin says. “Everyone’s grandma has a biscuit recipe. Every Christmas you have ham biscuits.”
“All your leftovers from Thanksgiving would be piled onto a biscuit,” adds Gab.
So while they might not be ‘f**king scones’, they’re in the ballpark, though not the same thing as the staple of genteel tearooms that come smeared in jam and clotted cream. Or clotted cream and jam (that’s yet another story).
These are soft, chewy and crispy at the same time, with an ever-so-vague nod to the Caribbean dumpling. Unlike the dumpling, they’re baked not fried.
“Bird Bird shared the recipe with us,” says Gab, a Sharpie tucked in her cap, which is appropriately embroidered with the legend ‘biscuits’. It’s the official cap of the minor league baseball team the Montgomery Biscuits, from Montgomery, Alabama, whose mascot is a cartoon biscuit not unlike a certain monster who enjoys eating cookies, with a pat of butter for a tongue.
“So it’s pretty much the same [as in Austin]. We’ve tweaked a few things, because of ingredients over here. So finding comparable butter was difficult. Finding the right salt was also interesting, so we had to adjust that. It’s been a learning curve. But we’ve done it!”
The chicken too is inspired by those Austin sandwiches. It is brined overnight in buttermilk, and then coated with a flour and spice dredge with some extra added splashes of buttermilk to create those lacy, crispy shards once it lands in the fryer.
Somehow, even without any raising agents, the chicken coating puffs up to become ludicrously crispy. It feels like some kind of witchcraft, and while these might be some of the best sandwiches, the chicken inside is some of the best in the city too.
The Hot Take is their best seller, loaded up with chicken, ranch sauce and homemade pickles, but please – please – don’t ignore The Cowboy, with ‘cowboy candy’ – sliced and sweet pickled jalapenos – and barbecue sauce. For the vegans, you can switch out the chicken for fried cauliflower. And at £8 for each, it feels like value compared to some of the more excessively priced sandwiches around town.
Sides, not to be ignored, include a classic cowboy bean salad and a potato salad, and some blazing cajun fries. And miss the sweet fried ‘birdies’ at your peril, mini biscuit donut holes rolled around in cinnamon sugar. Be warned, operating heavy machinery afterwards is not advised. You’ll want a snooze.
Acceptance has been overwhelming so far. Well, mostly.
“I had a guy want to fight me about how it was a scone,” says Dustin, having encountered a particularly aggro Manc gourmand. “We didn’t even have any, as we’d sold out, and he’d never had a biscuit, but he was going down the ingredients list. And he was just like ‘it’s a scone’.”
Welcome to Manchester, and please accept our apologies.
Cardinal Rule is at Ply on Lever Street, Tuesday to Saturday from 4.30pm