Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It's All About the Chicken

I’d like to interrupt our regular programming to talk about a topic that demands immediate attention.

Fried Chicken.

No, I’m serious. Being from the deep South, Fried Chicken is a serious topic. It is discussed in barber shops, grocery aisles and pot luck suppers. Recipes are guarded like loose diamonds. And oh yea, my momma’s is the best.

So… how did Fried Chicken reach cult status, and where is the BEST Fried Chicken in America? (and why am I capitalizing the words Fried Chicken?)

Some think it started in 1961 when Aunt Bea bounced out of the kitchen with a platter of Fried Chicken for Andy and Opie. Remember those dinners? Aunt Bea cooked chicken for about 12 guests but somehow Andy kept squeezing in one more bite. Barney got the leftovers.

The truth is southern pan Fried Chicken has been a staple of the old south, well, forever.

When I was growing up, we had some serious choices for fast Fried Chicken. Of course, the obligatory KFC and Churchs… but also the Atlanta-chain “Mrs. Winner’s” and the usually tasty “Popeyes” (which can really hit the spot if you are in need of a bowl of decent red beans and a side of dirty rice outside of Louisiana). Then there was the 20 unnamed spots (Joe Delpits Chicken Shack, Lee’s, etc). A big notch above that chicken was the finger-licking good stuff fried up at “Piccadilly”, a southern buffet restaurant that has become somewhat famous. And oh yea, you wouldn’t believe how good the chicken is at my neighborhood Albertson’s Grocery is…. (yes, I have waited in line for it).

But let’s stray from this variety of our favorite bird, and chat about Pan Fried Chicken.

What is so different? Well, this stuff takes forever to fry up. You can’t rush it. The chicken is usually hand cut, hand battered and hand spiced. Once the chicken is fried in a black cast iron skillet, the drippings are used to make a milk gravy…. destined for your mashed potatoes and biscuits. It is heavenly stuff… and culinary legends have been born on the backs of pan friend chickens.

What do you eat with Pan Fried Chicken? Collard greens, okra, crowder peas, green beans, white beans and rice, red beans, cream style corn, rice and gravy and hot buttermilk biscuits. Hungry?

So, where are the best places in the US to eat the stuff? I have a few helpful hints for you… and my favorites. Here we go.

Babe’s Chicken Dinner House, Roanoke, Texas
OK, so Roanoke, Texas ain’t a big place. But don’t consider it in Roanoke, because the truth is that it’s rock-skippin distance from Ft. Worth. This is crispy pan Fried Chicken in all it’s glory. The wait time here can drive you mad, but it’s worth the wait. They lose a point or two with me for cream gravy (made ahead of time I think) and good but not great biscuits… but the chicken is king here, and makes the stop well worth it. Next time you are in Dallas/Ft. Worth, make the effort. And think of me…..

The Hillbilly-Hideaway, Walnut Cove, North Carolina
Now we get serious. Anyone wandering through the NC countryside can smell this place 30 miles away… and I have to tell you, I love it. You get the full monty here… a heaping platter of chicken, a platter of country ham, and five or six side dishes of sides like smothered green beans, corn, cinnamon apples, cole slaw, pinto beans…and if you are lucky, cooked cabbage with bacon. Damn. Then, you get a basket of homemade ho-cake bread, a bowl of butter and honey and a stack of wet naps. Bring cash only and save room for pie.

And Andre’s All-Time Favorite

Stroud’s, Kansas City, Missouri
As a college student, I ate my share of junk. Well, as an adult, I still do. But one of my fondest memories of my 2 years in Kansas City was dinner at Strouds. This isn’t a restaurant as you know restaurants… it feels like Sunday dinner at your Grandma’s house. Checkered tablecloths, a lazy susan, lemonade, family-style bowls of green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy… and after a 40-minute wait… the best pan Fried Chicken you have ever, ever had. Sadly, they closed the 85th Street location a while back, but the one across town continues to pack them in. Next time in Kansas City, have lunch at Gates BBQ, and dinner at Strouds.

In New York…..

Charles' Southern Style Kitchen 2837 Eighth Ave at 152nd St.
Okra and mac and cheese make this one of the NY's best spots for chicken. Get there. Open late every night and features a buffet.

Maroon’s 244 W. 16th St., between Seventh and Eighth Aves.
Good if ya find yourself downtown baby. Fried Green Tomatoes to die for.

Or… do it yourself at home.

Andre’s Pan Fried Chicken

3 pounds chicken breasts and legs
1 egg
2/3 cup buttermilk
2 cups flour
Salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup lard or crisco
1 cup solid white vegetable shortening

Let chicken warm to room temperature. Wipe with a damp cloth. In a wide bowl, beat egg with buttermilk.

Place flour, salt and peppers in a brown paper bag. In a large skillet (preferably cast iron) heat lard and shortening. Dip each piece of chicken into the buttermilk-egg mixture and place in a brown paper bag. Close top of bag and shake until piece is well coated. Remove, and repeat for each piece.

When shortening is hot (375 degrees F on a deep-fat thermometer), ease chicken into pan and cook over high heat, turning so both sides cook evenly. Do not crowd more than a few pieces of chicken into pan at one time. When chicken is light gold on both sides, turn down heat to low and partially cover skillet. Cook 15 minutes, turning chicken once.

Remove chicken and drain on brown paper bags. Serve warm or cold. Serves 6 to 8, or André and his brother Allen.