Fried Chicken. What’s there not to like? Crispy golden skin. Juicy tender meat. Finger-lickin’ goodness. Apparently, the restaurants of the Bay Area seem to agree. Fried chicken is all the rage, and everyone seems to have a riff on this comfort food favorite: Farmer Brown serves it classic Southern-style, with hamhock greens and mac n’ cheese; Namu makes it Korean Fried Chicken with spicy slaw and pickled daikon; Zero Zero goes thighs-only for its gussied up Chicken and Semolina Waffles with Chestnut Honey Butter; Front Porch uses a cornmeal crust and serves it in a popcorn bucket.
Once you’ve set upon the path to finding the “Best Fried Chicken” it’s a quest that can easily obsess. And, it has its hazards…you know, it’s not quite as artery-friendly as say, a “Best Salad” quest. By no means have I sampled it all — for example, I have yet to try Casa Orinda’s fried chicken, which Michael Bauer swears by, and I’m still dying to try Brown Sugar Kitchen’s Chicken & Waffles — however, I have taste-tested my fair share, and well, someone should benefit from my “research.”
Best Destination Fried Chicken Orgy: Ad Hoc (Yountville, Napa)
Best Hangover Fried Chicken: Little Skillet (Soma, SF)
There is nothing like some Little Skillet Chicken & Waffles lovin’ to soothe your soul after a big night out. A little grease. A jolt of sugar. Yes, please. If Cento is open next door, even better, you’ve got your caffeine kick to boot. The skin on Little Skillet’s chicken is on the thinner side if you’re into that. I have found that that the juiciness level can be inconsistent — I’ve had the most luck during peak hours. On a sunny day, that concrete loading platform across from Little Skillet’s order window (a.k.a. their outdoor “seating” area) is where I want to be — sweet and savory on my tongue, and maple syrup dribbling down my chin.
Best Home-style Fried Chicken: Firefly (Noe Valley, SF)
Firefly knows how to do homey. Their menu changes regularly, so keep an eye out for this nostalgic gem, The Fried Chicken of Your Dreams with Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, Peas & Carrots and a Damn Fine Buttermilk Biscuit. Yes, that is what it’s really called. The chicken is tender and well-seasoned, and the skin has that magic quality of sticking to the meat so that you get a mouthful of crunchy goodness in each bite. The sides are classic wins, and the biscuit served with local honey is damn fine, just as advertised.
Best Fried Chicken Sandwich: Bakesale Betty (Oakland)
It’s not often I venture to the East Bay…but Bakesale Betty’s legendary Fried Chicken Sandwich is worth the shlep. The line will likely be out the door, if the wait is really long, the kind folks at Bakesale Betty’s have been known to bring out samples of their heavenly, chewy cookies. But I digress. The star of the show is this gorgeous hunk of a sandwich made with two generous pieces of chicken breast, double-dredged and fried, topped with a spicy slaw of cabbage, red onion, roughly chopped parsley, and a Dijon mustard-red wine vinaigrette (the key: no mayo). It’s all stuffed in between an Acme torpedo roll and quickly wrapped up before it has a chance to escape. Don’t worry, it will explode into a delicious mess when you open it, but that is part of the joy of eating one of these sandwiches. The balance of the buttermilk fried chicken (with lots of thick, crispy skin), and fresh crunch and vinegary tang of the slaw is fantastic.
Best Fried Chicken Value Meal: Hard Knox Cafe (Dogpatch, SF)
At Hard Knox, you can get three big-boy sized pieces of Fried Chicken plus your choice of two sides and corn muffins, all for a mere $11. Now that’s a bargain. The seasoning is a bit heavy on the salt and garlic, but for the value and portion, this is a steal. Also, the corn muffins are almost worth the trip themselves — sweet and light, more cake than bread, with a crunchy top that could inspire a “just the muffin top” shop.
I’ve noticed that there are two distinctly different styles. There’s your classic Southern-style fried chicken with buttermilk bath and thick, crunchy skin. And then there’s an Asian-style fried chicken seasoned with salt and garlic, and featuring a thin, super crispy skin.
For the former, Thomas Keller’s recipe is great, although a bit fussy with the brine. The brine however, is key in infusing the chicken with lovely lemon and herb notes, and also in making sure the meat is really juicy. Then there’s the buttermilk bath, and flour seasoned with garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne and salt. The result is a fried chicken that has complex layers of flavor.
In the Asian-style chicken my father-in-law makes, he trades in the brining method for a simple rub of salt, garlic, and ginger. By seasoning the meat really well, allowing it to soak in the flavors overnight, the flavor of the chicken really shines through from inside out. A quick coating of egg white, cornstarch and flour and that’s it. The result is a no-frills, tasty fried chicken that’s clean and simple.
- Season your meat (either by brining or salting). According to Fry Master Flava Flav, that’s the key to “blowin’ up your tastebuds.”
- Make sure your pieces of chicken are similar in size. This ensures that they fry up evenly. For larger breast pieces, cut them in half.
- If you’re butchering a whole chicken, choose a young chicken (about 2 pounds).
- Make sure the chicken is at room temperature before frying.
- Don’t crowd your pan/dutch oven/whatever vessel you’re frying in. If you place too many pieces in at once, the temperature of the oil will drop.
(Skip to 3:43 for a real treat)
Daddy Hua’s Crispy Fried Chicken
This Asian-style fried chicken features a simple rub of salt, garlic, and ginger, and a quick coating of egg white, cornstarch and flour. The result is a no-frills, tasty fried chicken that’s clean and simple, with a dynamite crispy thin crust.
2 garlic cloves, minced
A few slices of ginger, julienned
1 tablespoon salt
1 egg white
¼ cup cornstarch
¼ cup all purpose flour
- Rinse and pat dry the chicken.
- Toss the chicken pieces with the garlic, ginger, and salt. Mix well and let marinate at least 6 hours, or better, overnight.
- Let the chicken come to room temperature. Brush off the garlic and ginger pieces. Coat the chicken in egg white.
- Mix together the cornstarch and flour on a plate. Dredge the chicken in the mixture, coating both sides. Shake off the excess flour and let sit for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 250 F.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet/wok/dutch oven, heat up about 2 inches of oil. A good way to test when the oil is ready is to throw in a small piece of bread. If it starts to bubble right away and brown within a minute, the oil is ready.
- Fry the chicken 1-2 pieces at a time, skin side down first. Flip and brown the other side. Repeat until all the pieces are done. Place them on a wire rack over a baking sheet so that any excess oil drips down. As you work through the batches, keep the done pieces warm in the oven.
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This post was originally published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites on January 26, 2011.