"I think that the Colonel would agree that Lee's has made the family proud."
Digging into the cluckin' awesome world of our favorite fried food.
Growing up there were two fried chicken places in my hometown: Lee's Famous Recipe (known over the years as Famous Recipe and later just Lee's) and KFC (formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken). KFC was Coca Cola while Lee's was RC Cola in that KFC had way better marketing and national distribution.
Partly due to this, the Colonel's chicken always had more status in my mind, and better real estate. It was the first business you hit when coming into town from the Tennessee side, which is usually the way you were headed for trips to the metropolis of Knoxville, Tennessee, our closest city. Lee's sat secluded on the highway in a scooped out section of the mountainside. It reminded me of an outcrop from an "old west" ghost town, an association that was furthered by the lack of cars in the parking lot.
And then there's the packaging—that red and white KFC bucket was pretty classy for fast food packaging. The Lee's yellow, brown, and red was 70s city, too dated for a modern 80s kid.
Clearly these childhood biases were formed on everything except the food. On a recent trip home, it was time to go beyond my superficial rankings and take a true Kentucky fried chicken challenge.
First, a Little Backstory
As it turned out, these two chicken slingers have more in common than locations in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and a couple of name changes over the years. I knew the KFC story pretty well, mainly because I had heard how my grandfather had passed up the opportunity to go into business with "Colonel" Harland Sanders when he was trying to get his little Corbin, Kentucky restaurant to go big pre-WWI.
Instead of begrudging the fried chicken empire that could have been mine to inherit, I was captivated by the story of my family's brush with fried chicken fame. (This may have also informed my restaurant bias.) But what I didn't know was that the Harland Sanders story, which was intertwined with my own family's history, was also a big part of the Lee's Famous Recipe story. In fact, the two restaurateurs were kin.
Lee Cummings was the Colonel's nephew. They were both born in the same Indiana town of Henryville, Indiana (not even Kentuckians!). When the success of the Colonel's Corbin restaurant, Sanders Court and Café, was threatened in the early 1950s by the travel thruway outside his door, which was being replaced by an Interstate bypass, he took little Lee on the road with him to sell fried chicken franchises.
According to Lee's, in three years they opened over 800 KFC restaurants together. After their franchise tear across the country, the Colonel, then in his 70s, sold the company to John Y Brown (future governor of Kentucky) in 1962. Just four years later, Lee, equipped with his Uncle Harland's trade secrets and his own "Famous Recipe" started a new chicken franchise.
The Menu Similarities
Upon learning the Lee's story, I suddenly felt justified in my long-held view of the place as a KFC knockoff—a budget version. Growing up, before fast food gimmicks like the Double Down and Fiery Grilled Wings, the Lee's and KFC menus were basically identical. And not just the items listed on the menu, but the items themselves.
The slaw was cut the same, the potatoes had the same smooth-as-wallpaper-paste texture, the gravy was identical in hue. Was nephew Lee riding the Colonel's white coattails, or maybe the integrity of the Original Recipe®was preserved in the newly established family business? The only way to uncover the truth was in the chicken.
Both Lee's and KFC fry under pressure, the Colonel's own creation. Cutting frying time by a third is what revolutionized his restaurant concept and made him a fast food pioneer. In addition to speed, the method is credited with producing moist-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside pieces of chicken.
In terms of recipe deviation, we know all about the 11 herbs and spices at KFC. At Lee's, their birds are honey-dipped, hand-breaded, and fresh, never frozen. (This does not pertain specifically to Lee's, but if you've never had honey-dipped chicken, get some! The best restaurant fried chicken I've ever eaten was at the now closed Virginia House in Lexington, Virginia. They honey-dipped.)
Both places offer an "original" and crispy version of chicken. For this side-by-side, combination meals with both styles and mixed white and dark meat seemed the only way to go.
I remember only ever wanting the Original Recipe from KFC because the Extra Crispy was just too crunchy. That is no longer the case.
The Famous Recipe chicken from Lee's out-crunched the crispy batch at KFC. Lee's "Original" was a good exemplar of pressure fryer chicken because it held its juices and was covered in a crispy, but not overly crunchy batter.
I imagine the Colonel would rather have been hung up by his black string tie than to see how his Original Recipe® has devolved. The skin sagged off of stringy, slick meat and there wasn't one particle of coating that could be called crispy.
As for the KFC Extra Crispy™, it was a little better, but also simultaneously dry and greasy, a pressure-frying marvel that the Colonel would never have dreamed of. And while the texture was better, the flavor turned bland.
Lee's Crispy + Spicy, however, had a good kick and some legit heat, making it the best of the bunch. The breast meat at both places gets the stick-to-your-teeth chew quality that often plagues over-cooked white meat. But dark meat at KFC just translated to extra greasy meat.
So at KFC, the white was definitely the lesser of two evils whereas at Lee's, I would go all dark.
The sides at both places remain nearly identical. Lee's sides were slightly better across the board. Lee's should get some additional props for keeping livers and gizzards on their menu, which is pretty badass by mainstream America fast food standards.
Finally, Lee's is a better bargain. The three-piece meal at Lee's was $6.89 (pre-tax). At KFC, the same three-piece meal was $6.79, seemingly cheaper, but with an undisclosed $1.59 upcharge for the breast, bringing the subtotal up to $8.38. For inferior chicken.
KFC seems to have gone downhill while Lee's has maintained the status quo. If I am right, I can preserve the KFC I favored in my childhood, but recognize that it has veered from greatness. I think that the Colonel would agree that Lee's has made the family proud.