America's Best Fried Chicken
It is a Sunday rite in my hometown of LaGrange, GA. Church lets out and you head to Big Chic, our local fried chicken shop. Orders are taken from a simple walk-up counter, and hungry Baptists sigh happily as they wait for red-check boxes of sizzling, crispy goodness for afternoon supper. The car ride home is sanctifying as the fried, salty aroma fills the air like a spirit.
America’s sweetheart dish is apple pie, but its savory counterpart is most certainly fried chicken. A piping-hot platter of floured-and-fried chicken is the Bruce Springsteen of foods. Golden breading, flavor-packed skin, and fall-off-the-bone meat—this is the workingman’s filet mignon. Brought over by British pilgrims, and seasoned to higher stature by African American cooks in the Deep South, fried chicken has its origin in country kitchens. But to say refined gourmands don’t relish a steaming bowl of drumsticks is foolish.
If fried chicken came with celebrity status, Atlanta chef and James Beard award nominee Linton Hopkins would be an A-lister. His Restaurant Eugene in Buckhead is quietly becoming a foodie pilgrimage site for the Sunday-only fried chicken entrée—if not for the taste, for its nod to history. When Hopkins decided to open his flagship café on Sundays, he wanted to do something special. His answer? Using the oldest fried chicken recipe on record: Mary Randolph’s prerefrigeration formula, catalogued in the 1824 edition of the cookbook The Virginia House-Wife.
“We doctor up our skillet with bacon bits, lard, peanut oil, and some Benton’s country ham trimmings,” Hopkins says. “Just like a southern cook would have done. What can I say, I’m a geek.”
From coast to coast, fried chicken is a craving that has withstood centuries of supperdom, never waning in the country’s tastes, while simultaneously allowing room for creative evolution. In Los Angeles, the popular Roscoe’s is a pioneer of the blended-meal tradition of chicken and waffles. (One fan is Larry King, who once showed up with a camera crew and Snoop Dogg.) And in Nashville, Prince’s Hot Chicken wins the fear-factor category with a cayenne concoction (born from an angry lover’s quarrel) that will make you sweat—then want another bite.
As our nation’s dish of choice, fried chicken outpaces the burger and out-souls the pizza pie. Whether made by small-town cooks or big-city chefs, whether eaten minutes after frying or as chilled leftovers from the cooler, this one dish, above all, holds a wistful and enduring draw: its ability to comfort.
Roscoe’sHouse of Chicken, Los Angeles
Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles is what happens when a Waffle House marries a Memphis meat ‘n’ three and drives off to find fame in the Hollywood hills. The Frisbee-size waffles come topped with a huge dollop of butter, and the southern-style chicken—which is also delicious with rice and gravy—is not over-breaded or too greasy. And the stars are certainly on board. Redd Foxx famously dropped Roscoe’s name into comedy routines, and the restaurant is mentioned in the movies Rush Hour and Swingers. Safe to say, Roscoe’s is a Cali staple, but there’s still a Dixie whistle to the place. Maybe it’s the chicken livers and giblets on the menu.
Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins is a believer in the secret menu. When the clock strikes 10 each night at his classic public house, Holeman & Finch, 24 double-patty burgers hit the grill—and sell out in minutes. Even more difficult to order is Hopkins’s ode to fried chicken at Restaurant Eugene, a sophisticated farm-to-table establishment in Atlanta’s trendy Buckhead quarter. “We serve it only on Sunday nights,” Hopkins says, “and with whatever is in season. Today: a chopped tomato salad with a dollop of mayonnaise. Maybe creamed corn.” Unearthing an 1824 recipe for his Sabbath supper, Hopkins goes the extra mile in tribute to cooks from a Jeffersonian era. “We brine our chicken 24 hours in salt water, pat them dry, then do a light flour dusting before an entire deep-fry bath,” he says. His main fried chicken law is simplicity. “A lot of times when chefs cook an icon,” Hopkins says, “they keep wanting to do something to it. And that’s when you end up with disasters like pineapple in your coleslaw.”
Side StreetInn, Honolulu
On an island where space is the prized commodity, strange couplings occur. Like karaoke and fried chicken. Side Street Inn, a chef’s hangout in Honolulu, has come into local fame (which is spreading since Anthony Bourdain stopped by in 2009) for its frying rap sheet. The big kahuna is the fried pork chops. The filler is the kimchi fried rice. But the unheralded find is chef Colin Nishida’s fried chicken, which blends his Asian roots and Polynesian bent. Just save room for your turn belting out a ukulele-backed Black Eyed Peas hit.
In the land of 20-pound pizza and street-seller hot dogs, there’s a new craving in town, and it comes from (and with) Seoul. Crisp, a Korean fried chicken headliner in the Lakeview ‘hood, dishes out a half dozen versions of chicken, all served two ways: half or whole. For Sassy Seoul, the cooks bathe the birds in a garlic-ginger-soy blend, dust them with flour, then double-fry for a mysteriously greaseless finish. The Plain Jane has a golden, almost translucent coating, the trademark of the Korean fried chicken tradition.
Fried chicken is the darling of country fare, and at Hollyhock Hill, the Hoosier state institution since 1928, they stick with what works. Pan-fried in one-of-a-kind cast-iron skillets that are three-by-three-feet, Hollyhock’s chicken is—and this is the real trick to the best of the best—never frozen. Not once. Owners Barbara and Jay Snyder (who bought the restaurant in 1992, but started working there as teenagers) source fresh chicken from Kentucky and Tennessee farms, butterfly the meat in-house, and chill it overnight with ice. Usually by the following day, grandma-style platters and bowls of the lightly floured, slow-cooked wishbones and breasts sell out with mashed potatoes, buttered corn, and buttermilk biscuits.
BlueRibbon Sushi Bar and Grill, New York
A sushi place? For fried chicken? Wince all you like, but once you try the wildly eclectic twist on this southern delicacy, you’ll see. First, the chicken is dredged in a daring invention of matzoh meal, flour, paprika, togarashi peppers, cayenne, and sea salt. Second, chefs bed the fried glory atop shredded cabbage with a wasabi-honey dipping sauce on the side. Third, when devoured, a state of blissful confusion sets in: am I in a Tokyo brasserie or central Kentucky? The Midas touch of brothers Bruce and Eric Bromberg strikes again on Columbus Circle.
Rack& Soul, NewYork
The Morningside Heights chef tandem at Rack & Soul (pitmaster John Wheeler and soul-food front man Charles Gabriel) hit the spot with a killer one-two punch: barbecue and fried chicken. Honestly, it’s a coin flip between the two. Go with Gabriel’s golden-brown chicken, a family recipe he’s been cooking for 50 years. Pan-fried and seasoned with a little something-something Gabriel won’t divulge, the moist meat kicked off a revival of the dish in Manhattan when Rack & Soul opened in 2006. Even though the soul chef’s heart sticks close to his original Harlem restaurant, his mama’s fried chicken lives in the upper-Broadway diner.
Prince’sHot Chicken Shack, Nashville
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is a nothing-special storefront in a lackluster section of Music City, but the nuclear-red chicken breast is the stuff daredevil legends are made of. Hot is the biggest understatement in the 615 area code. Prince’s cayenne kick is enough to warrant bringing a gallon of milk. Supposedly, the famous recipe was thought up by a spurned lover, only the fried-up revenge was the best thing the cheatin’ boyfriend had ever tasted. On weekends, late-night eaters fill their craving of the pickle-topped chicken until 2 a.m.
Eating at the old-style family diner in Houston feels like an Edward Hopper dream with a Deep South spirit on the side. The same soulful bunch of ladies in the back kitchen have been at the Inn for ages, and five days a week they fry yardbirds to order. It’s a solid 25-minute wait for the good stuff, but you can trust these cooks. Their single-dip, light-dusting secrets, like passed-down heirloom recipes, make barbecue the last thing locals order in the North Houston landmark. Plates come packed with thick-cut fries, and in the classic, more-meat-is-better leaning, you can order up fried shrimp as a side item. Call it Texas surf and turf.
Max’sWine Dive, Austin
Chefs who try to fancify lowbrow food warrant suspicion but not immediate dismissal. Max’s Wine Dive in Austin is a perfect example of why checking it out is smart. Advertised awkwardly as “upscale comfort food,” its fried chicken is better described as Tex-Mex soul. Cooks soak the chicken for 24 to 36 hours in a jalapeño buttermilk marinade before deep-frying to order, which allows just enough kick to pair surprisingly well with a flute of champagne. Yes, Max’s Wine Dive is the kind of joint where ordering a glass of bubbly with fried chicken is par for the course.
Which is more difficult: finding a chef to open his place on Mondays or finding a chef to serve fried chicken in Seattle? Chef Mark Fuller of Spring Hill gladly does both. Reservations for Monday’s special family-style meal—herb dumplings in a cheddar cheese sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy and slaw, fresh cucumber salad, jalapeño cornbread, and two whole chickens—usually fill up by Friday. Fuller brines the chickens for six hours, then dredges the birds in a homemade spice mix based on his grandmother’s go-to flavoring, Johnny’s Seasoning Salt. Fuller also stirs up the perfect fried chicken cocktail: a bourbon-based drink he calls Kentucky Sweet Tea.