Story by Igor Guryashkin
Igor's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Salon and ESPN The Magazine. He lives in Louisville with his cats.
Hit the road for a taste of classic fried chicken, sometimes with a twist.
What could be simpler than fried chicken? A dish of humble origins, it only needs a few things to work — a chicken (obviously), brine, flour and some sizzling hot oil. But just because this Southern classic has stood the test of time, doesn't mean there aren’t countless variations that can make it wildly different. Here are the cities around the country that are either keeping this classic pure or taking it to new heights.
Having stepped firmly into the limelight in recent years, it’s no surprise that Southern cooking — and one of its core staples, fried chicken — would find a home in New York City. Sure, you can find the standard chicken and waffles in most places, but few establishments have put as much thought into cooking the bird as Root & Bone. The secret? Rest the bird in a sweet tea brine for 24 hours before frying, and finish it off with “lemon dust.” Fancy that waffle after all? At Root & Bone, it’ll be a buckwheat cheddar affair. Elsewhere, Brooklyn’s legendary Pies-N-Thighs serves nationally acclaimed donuts and pies alongside their fried chicken. At Perry St, Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten offers his modernist take by applying the batter with a whipped cream siphon.
While Nashville hot chicken is nothing new to the city’s residents, only recently has this offering made the jump to the national stage. Some poultry purveyors may focus on more subtle flavors, but Nashville’s approach has always been to kick you in the teeth with heat. Nashville stalwart Prince’s Hot Chicken has been open for decades and their fire level runs from mild to ultra hot. If their medium level induces tears, use your imagination for what the rest of the spectrum is like. Elsewhere, well-regarded newcomer Hattie B’s has two Nashville locations (as well as one in Birmingham, Alabama) if the lines outside Prince’s are too long.
If Miami seems like an unlikely destination for terrific fried fowl, Yardbird Southern Table & Bar will quickly change your mind. After a 27-hour brine, the chicken is fried in lard and served with bourbon maple honey. There’s optional waffles and watermelon, too. How good is their chicken? Well, a James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant is proof, as is their expansion to Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and Singapore. It’s just that good!
While it’s technically a stone’s throw across the river in New Albany, Indiana, Gospel Bird is at the forefront of rethinking chicken. Just look, for example, at chef Eric Morris’ reimagining of poutine using deep-fried chicken livers. Then again, he can go traditional, too, with a perfectly cooked half bird — either fried or cooked on a rotisserie. If you’re looking for a little bit of history though, look no further than Louisville staple Shirley Mae’s Cafe, now in its 28th year of ownership, or new kid on the block Joella’s, bringing a bit of Nashville to the Bluegrass State with its hot chicken.
If you take a trip to Philly it would be easy to convince yourself that Federal Donuts — a brilliant mash-up of fried chicken and donuts — has not taken over the City of Brotherly Love. Why? Because you’re unlikely to find the unique flavors they use on their chicken for miles around. Try the chicken with the za’atar rub, the coconut curry or the buttermilk ranch, all served on a potato bun (with doughnut pairings at your discretion). Simply amazing.
The secret to Wayfare Tavern’s fried chicken isn’t in the frying — but in the baking — two and a half hours on low heat. Only then do they throw it in the fat, creating one of the best fried chickens on the West Coast. But San Francisco is far from a one-stop shop. Look no further than Brenda’s Meat and Three where the slightly spicy take of chef/owner Brenda Buenviajé’s New Orleans background takes hold. Don’t forget to get those cream biscuits, too. And while Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc - Addendum isn’t strictly in San Francisco, it’s well worth the drive up to Yountville to try the famed chef’s take on the humble bird.
Los Angeles has a huge Koreatown, meaning there are lots of Korean restaurants that can transform chicken to new tasting heights. One way they do that is by double frying the meat and then covering it in a spicy gochujang glaze. While the many locations of BonChon may dominate the market — and rightly so — outfits like Plato offer a crunchy bird with pineapple coconut butter. Away from K-town, Son of a Gun serves their chicken with spicy pickle slaw and Sriracha aioli on a sweet and soft brioche bun.
The nation’s capital also has some of the best takes on chicken. OK, so The Partisan’s fried chicken isn’t classically prepared, as there is no batter, but it’s so good it deserves a mention here. They cook a rotisserie chicken before throwing it into a fryer and serving it with honey hot sauce on the side. For another unique take, try Central Michel Richard’s luxurious Gallic twist, as day-old bread crumbs are mixed with milk and raw chicken shavings and stock (instead of the usual egg), creating a singular batter that, when fried, is as crispy and flaky as you’ll find.
Fried chicken is one of the ultimate soul foods, and many would argure the capital of soul food is Atlanta. And in a city full to the brim with soul food joints, few can claim to be as good (and as old) as the Busy Bee Cafe. Open since 1947, it sells what many claim is the best fried chicken in the city. A 12-hour brine and a deep fry in peanut oil creates something simple yet timeless. While Busy Bee Cafe is the queen of soul food, there is an apt rival in Watershed on Peachtree. Chef Zeb Stevenson serves a fried bird that’s been listed in the top five in the nation by the Food Network. Why? Brining the chicken in buttermilk and frying it in ham hock fat is part of the magic, but if you want to know more, you may need to try it yourself.
In the Windy City, the best fried chicken joints are seemingly named “Shack.” Harold’s Chicken Shack has been open since 1950 and is a Chicago stalwart. Many people claim Evanston Chicken Shack is the king of the roost, even though it's slightly outside of Chicago. Evanston has been open for more than 25 years. If the area’s two leading chicken joints have been open this long, Chicago must be doing something right.