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)
The greatness of this fried chicken has taken on almost mythical proportions, with cult followers calling Fried Chicken Night at Ad Hoc a religious experience. Is it as good as everyone says? In one word: yes. One satisfying bite into a hunk of their Buttermilk Fried Chicken and you’ll be born again. It’s not just that the skin is perfectly crunchy and substantial, or that the brined meat is juicy and flavorful, or that it all comes family-style in a big oversized bowl brimming with indulgence. At Ad Hoc, it’s the sum of all the parts that make this a destination dining experience. Your entire meal is orchestrated without the slightest bit of effort from you. Even the drive up to Napa adds to the delicious escapism of the evening. Fried Chicken Night is every other Monday; for an incredibly convenient schedule of exactly which Monday it falls on, check out Inuyaki’s custom FCN-stalker calendar.
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.
If you’re fixing to tackle some homemade fried chicken, there are some key questions you need to ask yourself. To brine or not to brine? Buttermilk bath or no? Single or double dredge? All purpose flour, rice flour, or cornmeal crust? Vegetable oil, peanut oil, or straight up lard? And then there is the question of what style of fried chicken you’re after.
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.
Whatever your chicken of choice is, here are a few tips to get the best fry possible:
(Skip to 3:43 for a real treat)
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.
Recipe Source: LickMySpoon.com.
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This post was originally published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites on January 26, 2011.