Within the past century, fried chicken has gone from being something accessible only to a certain echelon of home cooks to being mass distributed in a variety of fried chicken chains (KFC being the leader of that movement) to something upscale, artisanal, innovative, and internationally embraced.
This progression has resulted in much more fried chicken (yay!) and even more tasty spins on this classic Southern comfort dish. Of course, to be considered truly excellent, fried chicken needs to achieve the following two requirements:
- It must be tender and juicy.
- It must have a crispy crust.
Reversing the criteria with a soggy crust and/or dry chicken is simply unforgivable. Beyond that, nuances such as seasoning, glazes and sauces, amount of fry batter, type of oil, number of dredges, and other factors are left to the discretion of the chef.
I’ll admit, even my own fried chicken recipe has evolved thanks to interpretations from leading chefs. After tasting the onion rings at Top Chef All Stars winner Richard Blais’s Birmingham-based Flip Burger and after buying Blais’ cookbook, Try This at Home, I’ve made some changes to my own tried-and-true home frying practice. For example, rice flour and seltzer or beer (yes, for the chicken) are now essential ingredients. I also add a little ras el hanout to my breading because if the modern fried chicken culture has taught me anything, it’s that anything goes (and good authors who once knew better words now only use four letter words writing prose).
I digress. Across the South, there’s no shortage of fried chicken. There are some restaurants that do nothing but fried chicken; at others, fried chicken is one of many items on a down home or even a fine dining menu. While there’s no such thing as a definitive guide of “the best” fried chicken, there are a smattering of restaurants and chefs that are truly, inarguably, nailing it.
1. Willie Mae’s the Queen
I’m going to start by contradicting myself; the best fried chicken in the South can be found at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, located in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood. Opened in 1957 as a humble, down-home comfort food restaurant, Willie Mae’s serves up fried chicken that has been called “to die for” by a Zagat reviewer.
Willie Mae’s famous buttermilk-marinated, wet-battered, and deep-fried chicken is now made by her granddaughter, as the lady who started it all is retired. Even humorous, yet often acerbic chef and culinary critic Anthony Bourdain said, “The stuff really is that good,” as he crunched into a piece of chicken on an episode of No Reservations.
2. Hattie B’s (and others) like it hot (& saucy)
Nashville’s Hattie B’s opened in 2012 and is proof that even newcomers to the fried chicken game can make a mark and take names. When Bishop’s Meat and Three started doing a cafeteria line during lunch service, the hot fried chicken was a huge hit, which compelled owners to make it the star of its own show.
Hattie B’s has five levels of heat for their seasoned fried chicken: Southern, mild or medium, hot, damn hot, and shut the cluck up. Hattie B’s has three locations: two in Nashville and one in Birmingham, AL. Good (and hot) news travels fast, apparently.
3. But seriously, Prince’s is the King of Hot Chicken
If your interest in Tennessee’s hot chicken trend pertains above all else to the level of heat that you can endure, then swing by the restaurant that started it: Prince’s Hot Chicken. The nondescript Nashville mainstay opened in 1940 and features four levels of heat: mild, medium, hot, and extra hot. It’s impossible to find anyone who’s been able to tolerate extra hot; presumably, they burned up like a meteor blazing into the Earth’s atmosphere upon putting the fried chicken to their lips. Bless their hearts.
Medium’s hot enough to make you eat ranch dressing by the tablespoon and drink enough water to flood the Mississippi. Hot is apparently some kind of weird, cure-all aphrodisiac, as it’s been said by those who know that more than one couple has gotten frisky in their car (good Lord, not me) after taking their hot wings to go, so there’s that. Who needs marriage counseling when you can get hot wings to go?
4. Fried chicken renaissance at ‘Revival’
As a die-hard Top Chef fan, I’m always rooting for their alumni to succeed. In the case of humble, Atlanta-based chef Kevin Gillespie who nearly won the whole darn enchilada in Season 6 against the (possibly) best competitors the show’s ever seen, the Voltaggio brothers (who are as gorgeous as they are talented…honestly, sometimes God really does give with both hands), I definitely want to see his endeavors to do well.
If Gillespie’s fried chicken at his Decatur restaurant Revival is any indication, the future is not only bright for Gillespie, but also for fried birds. (My taste buds do rejoice.) Like Willie Mae, Gillespie goes with a wet batter to achieve a flawless crispy crust on his super-juicy, perfectly-seasoned, and spicy-but-not-too-spicy fried chicken. It really will make you want to smack your mama, an aspiration of all fried chicken.
5. Beasley’s Chicken + Honey is the bee’s knees
Raleigh-based Beasley’s Chicken + Honey is led by James Beard Award-winning chef and proprietor, Ashley Christensen and is—at the risk of sounding like a Millennial—everything fried chicken has evolved since its humble beginnings to be. It’s crispy, classic, and Southern. It’s modest and humble but also elevated and complex without being pretentious. Fried chicken should never be pretentious. Speaking of lacking ego, Chef Ashley willingly shares her recipe here in this The Daily Meal article.
6. Fried chicken here, fried chicken there, fried chicken anywhere
Obviously, with the exception of Hattie B’s, you have to be in a certain part of the southeast to gain access to these expertly breaded and fried delicacies. Though not nearly as ubiquitous as fast fried chicken fiends Popeye’s or KFC, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, with 16 locations in total, is definitely the place to get your classic fried chicken fix if you’re on the go. Vibrantly seasoned and perfectly crispy, Gus’s is a “can’t go wrong” fried chicken option.
Also in the class of can’t-go-wrong, go-to fried chicken fixes is the Publix Deli. You might be surprised to learn that this Florida-based grocery chain is one of the most popular places in the South to get super crunchy, consistently awesome fried chicken. So, if you’re on the go, or if the craving hits you while grocery shopping (I mean, why not get a little weird on aisle three?), Publix is where it’s at.
7. Heaven in a hole in the wall
Do you ever drive by a place and think that it looks like a dive but that it probably has the best BBQ, fried chicken, street drug connections, whatever in town? Well, when you drive by Arnold’s Country Chicken in Nashville and you think that the fried chicken must be out of this world, you’re right.
For over three decades, Arnold’s has consistently delivered salt and black pepper brined fried chicken that is seasoned with just the right amount of cayenne, garlic, and Louisiana hot sauce wash. The chicken is flavorful and delivers on the requisite crunch. I know their thing is “meat plus three” but seriously, I’ll just take the fried chicken. What are these sides you speak of?
8. Fried chicken to fly south for
Sometimes we forget that Miami is part of the south (it’s just so far down there…like the South’s basement). However, much like a basement, there’s some really good stuff down there, like Yardbird Southern Table & Bar originally started by Top Chef contender (I know) Jeff McInnis and collaborators Chris Romero and John Kunkel. Yardbird offers a sophisticated dining experience with a large bourbon selection; however, the real star isn’t the booze that’s probably worth more than my car, it’s the fried chicken.
According to a New York Times piece by Steven Raichlen published when the restaurant opened in 2012, the fried chicken recipe is inspired by Kunkel’s grandma’s own method. It’s brined for 27 hours before being dredged in cayenne-spiced flour and fried. While I like to learn about process for my own cooking prowess, I honestly don’t care if doves brought the fried chicken straight from heaven, because that’s kind of what it tastes like anyway.
As you can see, there are many restaurateurs throughout the South who are both classically-trained, upscale, and refined as well as down-home, traditional, and time-honored in their approaches to fried chicken. What these places have in common is a shared respect for tradition and for quality. When discovering the South’s most iconic fried dish, look for chefs who revere their product and take the time to ensure tender, juicy meat with a crispy crust that crunches with every bite. Even among those connoisseurs who disagree as to whether honey sweet with a touch of heat or scintillatingly hot is best, they can agree that you know quality Southern cooking when you taste it.