By Taylor Bruce
The all-American dish is much more than Colonel Sanders. Whether in L.A. or Atlanta, it's the essential soul food.
Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken in New York City.
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.
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.
Slideshow: America's Best Fried Chicken
Roscoe's House of Chicken n' Waffles in Los Angeles, California.
Roscoe's House 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.
Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, Georgia.
Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta
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."
Spicy Fried Chicken from Side Street Inn in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Side Street Inn, 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.
Korean Style Wings from Crisp in Chicago, Illinois.
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 from Hollyhock Hill in Indianapolis.
Hollyhock Hill, Indianapolis
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.
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By Taylor Bruce