Here's Our Travel Guide to This Nation of Over 7,000 Islands
They say you always want what you can't have, so it's understandable that Tennesseans will find themselves craving the fried chicken from this long-running Nashville meat-and-three throughout the week as it is only available on Mondays. That it could achieve such legendary status while only being available for 1/7 of the week is a testament to its power. It's battered twice. It's hot sauce brined. It's highly advisable to line up early on Monday so that you don't find yourself waiting another week to get your hands on some.
The Skrehot family has presided over this Houston institution that disappointingly will NOT let you sleep overnight since 1946, and while there is ample smoked meat at the ready as the name would indicate, the fried chicken (and on a related note, the chicken-fried steak) are the true showstoppers here. Get yourself an order of All Dark because you dropped any pretense of nutritional virtuousness the moment you walked in the door, then sidekick it with a baked potato stuffed with chopped beef (why not), and if one of your companions went chicken-fried steak instead, make sure you steal a few bites of that as well.
Raleigh, North Carolina
Toss a rock in Raleigh, and you're probably going to hit a place that has a solid fried bird option, then you will likely promptly get your ass kicked because fried chicken makes you too sluggish to run. So what makes this casual, diner-style spot stand out among so many glorious options? Well, it's in the name. Salty, battered, wondrously juicy chicken gets a slight drizzle of honey that makes all the difference at James Beard winner Ashley Christensen's low-key temple of golden-fried indulgence. That drizzle is optional, mind you, and even without the nectar this stuff is a knockout. But with it, it's transcendent, an addition that will forever change all future plates of chicken & waffles you encounter, and a glorious flavor enhancer on a chicken biscuit that combines with Dijon to make the kind of honey mustard dreams are made of. Pair it with pimento cheese and some brown butter church cake. Then stop throwing rocks. You aren't gonna be moving much after this.
Big Jones may reside on the North Side of Chicago, but its Southern bona fides are unimpeachable. Chef Paul Fehribach is deeply knowledgeable when it comes to cookbooks on Southern cuisine (in fact he's written one) so it's no surprise that Big Jones' fried chicken recipe channels the legendary Edna Lewis. That means your brined Amish bird is fried in a combo of leaf lard, ham drippings, and clarified butter resulting in an addictive plate of crisp, juicy chicken that would render the biscuits that come on the side irrelevant if they weren't also works of art in their own right.
New York, New York
Virginia native Keedick Coulter's Alphabet City eatery brines its free-range birds overnight in sweet tea, lending a subtle sweetness to the juicy flesh after its dredged in the requisite closely guarded blend of flour and spices and then pressure-fried. If you're of the boneless persuasion, it's available sandwich style, or get yourself a three-piece dinner with a gloriously flaky biscuit and a (if you must) salad. No matter how much chicken you put away, you'll be making a horrible mistake if you deprive yourself of the pecan pie bread pudding as your final act of indulgence.
San Francisco, California
Brenda Buenviaje is a NOLA native who realized her adopted Bay Area home should not be deprived of the proper meat and three experience, her fried chicken (which first debuted at her more brunch-focused Brenda's French Soul Food) is a spicy, peppery wonder that's served with some hot pepper jelly that doesn't even count as one of your three sides! Now all you have to do is figure out how to choose from among cheese grits, cream biscuits, mac & cheese, cornbread, red beans and rice -- look, just make a call, OK? Every second is delaying an important meeting between you and chicken.
There’s a very easy way to tell Busy Bee Café has Atlanta’s best fried chicken. No, it’s not because of celebrity visits by the likes of New Edition, Killer Mike, or Bernie (which would be an AMAZING concert, FWIW). It’s because if it wasn’t, the iconic westside soul food restaurant would surely have closed by now. Sure, Atlanta loves soul food, but Atlanta also has FOMO, and a taste for every new restaurant that comes along. All someone has to do is create a better 12-hour marinade, a better method of creating a light, crisp batter, drop it in peanut oil and produce a more delicious fried bird. But that’s not as easy as it sounds, and it probably wouldn’t have the simple, timeless, culturally important flavor that’s given us 70 years of happiness. It’s the King’s choice. Quite literally.
New York, New York
The "Charles" in question is North Carolina-born Charles Gabriel, who started out frying the platonic ideal of fried poultry on a food truck more than two decades ago before moving on to his 15-seat Harlem storefront. As for the "pan," it's massive, cast iron, and also from North Carolina. The dry-rubbed birds are impeccably seasoned at every level and seemingly manage to achieve maximum juiciness without a hint of greasiness on the exterior. An all-you-can eat dinner runs $13.99 -- be warned, you will likely be tempted to take "all" in the most literal of senses.
San Diego, California
Let’s be honest. Organic meats are great and all, but a chicken could be raised on a hormone-free cloud while being consistently massaged by an angel, and it wouldn’t make a difference if it didn’t fry up deliciously. Luckily, the folks at this newish SD favorite put as much effort into making its fried chicken top-notch as the farmers it sources from do making sure the future drumsticks are treated humanely. Served in five- or 10-piece portions (who are you kidding, get 10), the birds are Southern fried with a blend of secret herbs and spices from a fancy San Francisco spice merchant and served crispy with a wide array of sauces, among them curry mustard, kimchi BBQ, and a house ketchup kissed by the same spices that make the chicken so great. There are also chicken sandwiches and salads, but, you know, why fill up on salad when there are biscuits with miso butter and ice cream sandwiches. If you’re feeling too fat after skipping greens, you can always hit the on-site bocce court for a little exercise.
As they do in most restaurants that adhere aggressively to local sourcing (see the pictures of the farmers they work with adorning the walls), Harvest evolves its menu with the seasons. Luckily, buttermilk fried chicken never goes out of season. They do occasionally evolve the accoutrements you'll find on the side, but don't worry -- this chicken could be served alongside a brick and an old shoe, and you'd still be ecstatic. You should be even more ecstatic that they've instead elected to accompany it with fluffy mashed potatoes, braised greens, buttermilk gravy, and hot sauce. Keep an eye out for chicken & waffles when they grace the brunch menu.
Portland chef Akkapong "Earl" Ninsom has been steadily elevating Portland’s Thai scene for years, so when he announced a new Thai fried-chicken concept, expectations were high. They were exceeded. Unlike prix fixe hit Langbaan’s elegant exploration of Ninsom’s homeland, Hat Yai is a bare-bones, counter-service affair tucked in a still-developing neighborhood under some apartments. But the chicken -- ye gods, this chicken. Fried just short of burning to achieve a tremendous crunch, it’s plump and exploding with fresh-ground pepper spice. It's served alongside a complex bowl of curry, teeming with cumin, chili, and coconut milk. The curry can be used to dunk roti (fried flatbread) and the chicken itself, pour over rice, or just drink. Nobody will judge.They’ll be too busy blissing out.
Do you know what a hollyhock is? Well, it’s a tall Eurasian plant of the mallow family and has “large showy flowers.” Apparently they grow in Indiana in the place where V.D. Vincent and his wife started serving special dinners at their cottage. It's only had two other owners since that time, run now by the Snyders, who’ve been a part of the restaurant for over 50 years. But enough history, let’s get to the good stuff. The fried chicken is the first thing you’ll see on those menus, as they’ve already figured out the appetizers, salad, and side dishes for you. They call it “famous, Hoosier, pan-fried chicken.” You’ll just call it “that thing I need to eat at least 50 more times in my life.”
Culver City, California
Vincent Williams, the master chef at Honey’s Kettle, has “over 40 years of fried chicken cooking experience.” He is purported to have fried “millions of pieces of chicken every year.” And according to Malcolm Gladwell theories, that puts him so far over the 10,000-hour mark, he likely has no choice but to be the best fried chicken chef in the damn world. And judging by his chicken, that theory might hold up. All of it is hand-dipped in a special batter that is impervious to high temperatures and cooked up in peanut oil. Do yourself a favor and get the three-piece with a wing, leg, and thigh in the mix, plus those buttermilk biscuits. Then dip everything in honey and figure out what you should dedicate 10,000 hours to. It might just be eating this chicken.
When most of us close our eyes and think of Alabama, chances are that our minds go immediately to a big plate of Southern-fried chicken, maybe eaten on a porch swing while definitely still not thinking of that weird dream we had in which the state almost elected an alleged... nope. Not that. Little Donkey is a far cry from traditional 'Bama fried fare. Somehow, it's even more southern. Mexican, in fact. And while the menu is teeming with excellent smoked pork tortas and an arsenal of tacos, it's the fried chicken that completely brings the heat. The chicken is brined overnight in a bath that includes three different chilies, then hit with an habanero-spiked vinegar before getting golden fried. This ain't exactly Nashville heat (which, side note, sounds like a solid buddy cop show). It's something all its own, a complex burn that manages to complement the delicious fried burn rather than overtake it.
Erik Bruner-Yang's multifaceted DC restaurant/cafe/retailer seems to do a little bit of everything; thankfully one of those things is their Taiwanese fried chicken, which has become a must-try item since they opened a few years ago. It's sweet and spicy and fragrant and juicy and pretty much any other adjective you'd reasonably like to apply to fried chicken, with a just-right five-spice caramel glazing the exterior and enhancing the experience. Luckily, there are slices of impossibly buttery bread layered underneath to soak up any specks of flavor you might otherwise have missed.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Mildred Council, aka Mama Dip's, so nicknamed because her “long arms allowed her to ‘dip’” to the bottom of the rain barrel as a kid, started serving her lightly peppered shortening-fried chicken back in 1976. The move is half a fried chicken with greens (it changes daily, but you can trust it all, collards, turnips, or mustards), and black-eyed peas -- both are cooked with pork, of course. And your next move is to avoid falling asleep in the wood-paneled restaurant with its Grandma-approved patterned curtains and front porch. It may look like a living room, but, just because you ate half a bird, you can’t sleep there.
Once a weekly special on Ma'ono's menu, James Beard-winner and Hawaii native Mark Fuller's brined, buttermilk-soaked, umami-spiced, twice-fried chicken now stands front and center as the marquee item at Ma'ono, and good lord does it deserve the spotlight. So how do you make something like the perfect Hawaiian-style fried chicken even better? You don't. The word "perfect" still holds weight around here. But you can make the stuff surrounding it better by ditching the standard southern sides in favor of chili-spiked kimchi, curry/bacon fried rice, Spam musubi, and mac & "kimcheese." Sick of fried chicken? You're a monster. But you're a monster who can also get down on poke bowls and a game-changing take on loco moco. Still, this place isn't called "Ma'ono Other Stuff & Whisky." So get your fried chicken. And your whisky. Life is good.
Charleston, South Carolina
Raised in a culinary family, Martha Lou Gadsen's welcoming soul food sanctuary has been satisfying South Carolinians for more than three decades now, behind a brightly painted pink exterior that's as warmly welcoming as, well, a bite of her fried chicken. The menu is in a meat-and-three (or meat-and-two if you're not that hungry) format, but the fried chicken wisely never vanishes from the daily offerings. The double-dredged, peanut oil-fried bird comes out craggy and golden and begging to be paired with some cornbread and mac & cheese. But that's only because "more chicken" isn't a side option.
As Detroit continues to build its culinary portfolio, fancy-pants new joints are popping out some seriously great fried chicken, joining the old-guard mainstays in the tradition of quality fried fowl. But Detroit is a soul city, as evidenced by its history of Motown and its rich soul-food culture. And when it comes to the latter, nobody does it like Motor City Soul. The unassuming, cafeteria-style place basically Detroit on a plate, a pile of perfectly cooked soul favorites served up by hard-working folks who take immense pride in their work, even if they’re forced to do that work from behind bulletproof glass. The chicken itself is a thing of such simple, crispy perfection that more than warrants the line that frequently wraps out the door. The sides do it equal justice, but don’t fill up too much on candied yams and okra, or you’ll miss out on one of the best damned banana puddings in the world.
The Old Country Store is operated by Arthur Davis, but you can call him Mr. D. And Mr. D's going to greet you with a song when you walk in his Lorman, Mississippi restaurant: “Grandmama… oh Grandmama was a cornbread cookin’ queen,” which is, obviously, going to make you wish you knew Grandmama. The excellent news is that royalty is a family thing, and Mr. D is the fried chicken king -- he used Grandmama’s recipe to earn that title. So get in line for the buffet and load up a plate because, as Mr. D. also sings, “two-piece chicken and a biscuit… get it while it’s hot.” And you should always obey the king, especially when he's a singing baritone chef in rural Mississippi.
If it seems like everyone is getting into the hot chicken game lately, it's because they are. But Prince's is unquestionably where it all started, and they still serve it up with a side of spice-induced tears as well as anyone (you also might find yourself in tears when you see the line, but it'll be worth it). Get yourself a half chicken -- you can order it anywhere from "plain" to "XXXhot", but a down-the-middle order of "hot" tends to be a nice sweet spot for people of roughly average spice tolerance. But it's still quite hot. Load up on extra bread and pickles to aid you in your conquest.
Employing sort of Smoky Mountain magic, Public House answered a question most of us never pondered: What if a chef weaned on fine dining ditched the tweezers and opened something more akin to a meat and three? Luckily, the owners of Public House asked that very question. And while you can still get fancy stuff like stuffed quail, duck confit, and international charcuterie, it’s the fried chicken that brings that beautiful vision home (seriously, you read the headline on this article, right)? Like the legendary (but currently not on the menu) stuff at Blackberry Farm, this bird is brined in sweet tea, which gives it a singular flavor before it’s breaded and dunked in oil, then served up with a house-made pepper sauce. It comes with mac. Throw in some collard greens and mash to complete the vision of an affordable haute cuisine meat and three. Or meat and trois, if you insist.
Thomas Boemer opened his Minneapolis ode to the meals he ate growing up in the Carolinas and Missouri a few years back, and the "this is what we've been missing" response from locals was pretty much immediate -- there's already a second location in St. Paul. The menu's deep with faithful renditions of Southern classics, but the chicken is the undisputed star. The Amish birds undergo a three-day prep process that includes a buttermilk brine and a lard-aided trip through the deep fryer. The resulting crust is deep brown and shatteringly crisp. They offer a few different finishing styles, but the Nashville hot is about as credible a take on the style as you'll find outside Tennessee.
For nearly three decades now, Shirley Mae Beard has kept the rich history of the building that used to house the famous watering hole J&H Food Bar alive with her home cooking cafe. Before you do anything else, get some of that famous hot water cornbread to hold you down while you watch her cook-to-order your Southern fried jumbo chicken wings. For $9 at lunch, you get four perfect wings, cornbread, and two sides (make sure one is real mashed potato salad). The pan-fried wings have just enough seasoning and stay crispy and moist, even as you’re asking for a couple more pieces of cornbread and a sweet tea to help wash it all down.
Kansas City, Missouri
If, like us, you’ve always wanted to eat your fried chicken in an 1829 log cabin and farmhouse, Oak Ridge Manor is the place to do it. Since 1933, the good people of North Kansas City have gathered here for their pan-fried chicken. Get the regular dinner, and when you bite into that crunchy, salty, juicy, peppery chicken mess, and grease runs all down your face and YOU JUST DON’T CARE BECAUSE IT’S THAT GOOD, maybe pause for a second and appreciate your surroundings. Or, if you need more famous people to tell you how good it is, they’ve got great quotations lauding their chicken along the bottom of their website. So if you’re wondering if seven-time World Series-winning “professional baseball star” Hank Bauer called it “The best darn chicken I ever ate,” worry no more. He might just be right.
You don't make it in the restaurant game in Milwaukee without knowing your way around a fryer, and you don't six-peat as the Milwaukee Wingfest champ without some serious poultry prowess. This "Friendly Fried Chicken Joint" embodies all the welcoming lack of pretension you find at your typical Wisconsin tavern, with the one critical difference being the exceptional fried chicken. The well-balanced batter's not layered on quite as thick as what you might find at more Southerly joints, yielding an end result that isn't too heavy (by fried chicken standards). Get a four-piece hobo chicken dinner with fries, slaw, and Italian bread and go to town. Or if you want some of those aforementioned wings, they'll do them with or without batter depending on preference. Keep an eye out for rotating special sauces like the Nutty Rooster, a combo of Sriracha and peanut butter.
Sure, you can’t start any conversation about Top Notch without mentioning its iconic placement in Dazed & Confused, but there’s a damn good reason the old-school drive-up joint’s in the movie to begin with. Since 1971, it’s made Austin’s finest fried bird. And as the city’s food scene has evolved into more haute takes on comfort classics, Top Notch still does what it’s always done: it makes a perfectly crisp, salty, old-school chunk of chicken that’s golden fried and bursting with juice. That’s the good thing about Top Notch. You keep getting older, but that chicken stays the same.
When you’re confident enough to print the recipe on your restaurant’s promo matchbooks, you’re obviously fearless about your fried chicken. Watershed has no reason to be scared of y’all, particularly since its crunchy poultry, available only on Wednesday nights in limited quantities, has remained a consistent Atlanta champion through relocation and changing of chefs from OG Scott Peacock to the brilliant Zeb Stevenson today. And then you realize that it lays in buttermilk for a full day before being fried shallow-style in a skillet, in ham hock fat, and it all makes sense. It is something, even in these sometimes uncomfortable times, we can all believe in, bringing us together. It is the Atlanta United FC of restaurants, if “FC” stood for you-know-what.
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleanians are wont to throw around words like “legendary” and “institution” and “classic” when it comes to their restaurants that can lay any kind of claim to those adjectives. But, well, Willie Mae’s fried chicken deserves it. That crispy, spicy chicken was enough to drive crowds of volunteers to tend to the nearly half-a-century old restaurant after Katrina flooded through, and its melt-in-your-mouth skin and juicy meat are enough to beckon even the most tourist-averse locals to wait in the lunch line on a weekday for a plate, plus a side of salty, smoky red beans and rice. So, yes, Willie Mae’s Scotch House is a legendary, classic institution -- not just of NOLA, but of the South.
There are many contenders in Portland’s old-school, bone-in fried chicken melee, among them the best damn dive bar in the entire state and Mae, whose long-promised brick-and-mortar could springboard to the top of the coop soon (alas, now it’s a pop-up, and this isn’t a story about popups). But for our money, the best southern-style bird comes from Woodsman, a fancy, rustic cocktail and meat emporium that serves its crispy, impossibly tender full birds by the bucket. For a while, the secret seemed to lie solely in the batter’s slight kiss of honey and a generous, coarse sprinkle of salt, but local hero/Top Chef finalist Doug Adams is currently running the kitchen, and if there’s anything this man knows (and he knows a lot), it’s fried chicken This man has the Midas touch, and he somehow made the city's best bucket of chicken even better.
“Fried chicken? In Miami?!?! Obviously these writers have never actually had good fried chicken.” That’s an imitation of the inevitable comments stemming for our inclusion of a South Florida joint on this list. But guess what? We have eaten good fried chicken, and this Miami joint deserves your attention. You can go one of several ways. There's Llewellyn’s Fine Fried Chicken itself with some spicy Tabasco honey. There's also the Chicken 'N’ Watermelon 'N' Waffles, which features hot sauce honey, chilled spice watermelon, a Cheddar cheese chow chow waffle, and bourbon maple syrup. But then, there are also some lovely crispy chicken biscuits with pepper jelly. Maybe go for the trifecta?