Since its opening just under a month ago, getting your hands on the donuts and fried chicken at South Philadelphia's Federal Donuts is a task that requires planning, wherewithal, and above all, a real dedication to the gems of the fryer.
The tiny storefront co-owned by James Beard award winning chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav, partner Steven Cook, and Philly food writer-fryer queen Felicia D'Ambrosio has been selling out of both donuts and fried chicken at an alarming rate—as in the chicken's gone by a little after noon everyday and the donuts are a distant memory around 10 a.m. most days. With a track record like that, it's pretty much a given that there is something magical happening in the fryers at Federal Donuts.
To experience all that Federal Donuts has to offer, we made two trips—an early morning donut excursion (they start frying at 7 a.m.) and a late morning fried chicken visit (get there a little before noon; there will be a line).
First up are Federal's Hot Sugared Donuts ($1.25). Made by an amazing donut robot (the best kind of robot), these fresh-from-the-fryer donuts are automatically plopped into hot oil, fried and golden-dusted with Vanilla Lavender, Indian Cinnamon or Appolonia Spice, a mellow blend of cocoa and orange blossom.
The beauty of these guys is in the delicacy of their flavors. The fluffy sweetness of the just-fried donuts comes first and the aromatic sugar coatings are there to complement without overpowering the simplicity of a really stand-up donut. And a perfectly sized one at that—you can down all three with no problem at all.
While the Hot Sugared Donuts are best enjoyed moments after they emerge from the fryer, Federal's Fancy Donuts ($2) have a bit more staying power if you're planning on getting a dozen to go. Flavors rotate on a daily basis. On our visit they had: Key Lime, Nutella-Tehina-Pomegranate, Chocolate-Raspberry, and Coconut Pineapple.
Petite and cakey with flavor combos that you know a pastry chef was behind, these Fancies are gorgeous and complex. Sprinkled with graham cracker crumbles, the Key Lime had a great tang and the Chocolate-Raspberry was rich with what is obviously good chocolate, filled with little pockets of summery-tasting raspberry purée. Nutella-Tehina-Pomegranate is a nod to Solomov's Israeli roots, and the combo is intriguing—if they're not serving these in schmancy donuts shops in Tel Aviv yet, we bet they will be soon.
So, yeah, the donuts are totally awesome and we're pretty sure this place would be a smash hit even without the chicken. But, man, is that fried chicken great.
Cured overnight to ensure the ideal ratio of salty to juicy to mind-blowing, the chicken is served two ways, Crispy or Glazed (half $9/whole $17). If you go with crispy, you have three options: Za'atar, Buttermilk Ranch, or Harissa. Glazed give you two choices: Chile-Garlic or Honey-Ginger, both inspired by Korean fried chicken.
Like all superior fried chicken, much of the beauty of Federal Donut's chicken is in the cracklingly crisp skin, and while we liked the glazed chicken, it was the Crisp that won our hearts, namely the Za'atar, a sour herbaceous Middle Eastern spice blend and the Harissa, finished with just hot enough ground Moroccan chiles. Skin aside, every piece of chicken we tried was cooked perfectly, with both white and dark meat equally juicy and seasoned through.
And if this chicken wasn't fantastic enough on its own, each order comes with a side of sweet-salty Japanese pickles that seem to be your chicken's best friend.
Fried chicken and donuts, together at last? Sure, we were predisposed to love Federal Donuts based on concept alone, but these guys are doing it right with chicken and donuts that are not just well-executed and totally delicious but thoughtful and exciting. If you want to try Federal Donuts, do yourself a favor and get there early.