The scene: Following the same popularity arc as barbecue, in the past few years we’ve watched with mouthwatering pleasure as fried chicken moved from a traditional Southern specialty to a beloved national comfort food, with high quality specialists all over the country. It may seem straightforward, but just like pizza, barbecue and burgers, there are a lot of different ways to fry a chicken, including some regional takes on the genre. Here are five of the most interesting ways to enjoy this delicious dish we’ve come across.
The food: Fried chicken consist of two parts – the breading and the chicken. In a perfect world, the poultry itself is juicy and tender, not dry or chewy. The crust should be crispy, not soggy, and is usually better the more craggy or three-dimensional it is, which adds surface area and ups the delicious coating-to-meat ratio. It’s nice when the breading holds up to a bite and doesn’t pull apart, but beyond this there are no rules. We’ve seen great fried chicken with bones, no bones, spicy, sauced, dipped. To coax out the best results we’ve seen brines, buttermilk soaks, and secret ingredients from pickle juice to matzoh. Here are five inspired takes on fried chicken.
The classic: Want to try straight-up Southern fried chicken in its purest, most delicious form? Head to Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a James Beard Winner for American Classics in New Orleans. You won’t walk by, as Willie Mae’s is off the beaten tourist path in the Fifth Ward, but it is well worth the effort. The house-like corner restaurant has two small dining rooms divided by a hallway along which is the bustling open kitchen. It is open only for lunch and there is often a line. Willie Mae’s granddaughter runs the place now, still using the closely guarded family recipe, and the chicken is always fried to order and served hot. You’ll immediately notice how ragged and three-dimensional the breading is, crunchy and crispy and perfectly seasoned, just a bit salty and not spicy. But what makes Willie Mae’s chicken amazing is its juxtaposition of textures. The crust shatters to the bite, yet comes away clean, and as crispy and flavorful as the breading is, it is also surprisingly not greasy, like good tempura. The meat is perfectly moist and juicy, and the menu is pretty simple – your only chicken choice is a three-piece plate with choice of a side, and the french fries are excellent too.
Spicy: Nashville hot chicken is a suddenly trendy style that has really taken off, a distinct subset of the category that can now be found all over Nashville and across the country. However, the classic spot to try it is where it was born, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Most food is served to go, there are only seven tables, and you order at a window. It’s cash-only, with a very limited chicken menu and a handful of sides: fries, beans, cold slaw and potato salad. All chicken is served atop white bread and topped with pickles. The Nashville hot style is often misunderstood – it’s not fried chicken covered in hot sauce, like Buffalo hot wings, it’s cooked differently and hot through and through. Prince’s recipe is secret, but they will share that the heat is in the marinade, the breading, and even the oil they fry in is spiced. The breading is the spiciest part, but heat permeates the poultry to the bone. There’s no sauce, and it looks like regular fried chicken, but with an evil redder tint (as you go hotter it becomes a more threatening reddish-brown).
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