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.
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.
Roscoe’s House of Chicken
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 Street Inn
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.
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.
Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill
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.
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.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
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’s Wine Dive
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.
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