Digging into the cluckin' awesome world of our favorite fried food.
I ate too many hamburgers last year. You may be thinking, "Hold up, hoss. There's no such thing as too many hamburgers. How can you possibly retain your job at Serious Eats after making such a crazy claim?" But I assure you that my hamburger hiatus will be a short one undertaken to advance the noblest of causes: I intend to spend 2012 making up for lost time in the fried chicken department.
I doubt I ate 10 pieces of fried chicken in 2011. Massachusetts isn't a great fried chicken state, and my most frequent dining companion says public bone-gnawing is for dogs and ogres, but there's no excuse for a life-loving fast food correspondent to go more than a month without fried chicken. Since I'm so far behind in my research, I figured I should start my education at square one with a visit to America's most influential chicken fryer.
After a few wayward years spent pushing grilled chicken and meal bowls and breasts-as-bread, KFC seems to be returning to its roots with the current promotion of the Big Value Box. The BVB is a cardboard carryall stuffed with an individual-sized serving of popcorn chicken, a biscuit, two sides of your choosing, and a fried thigh (you get a giant jug of soda, too), and it served as my reintroduction to a chain I've forsaken for too long.
I started with the biscuit, since it had never known the fryolator's embrace and was therefore at the greatest risk of going cold on me. "Gravy-less biscuit" sounds more like a country music lament than a proper way to start a meal, but I was pleasantly undisgusted by this naked breadstuff. The exterior was a little too hard and the middle was a little too spongy, but I'll grant some credit for the contrast, and I didn't mind the fake-butter flavor competing with the heavy salt.
The first of my two sides was an order of potato wedges, which were even better than expected. They managed to be crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside without making my teeth pass through the dreaded gummy interregnum that often separates the two distinct zones of a fried potato wedge. The flavor was almost entirely spuddy, with less salt than the biscuit and no sign of the pepper suggested by the black flakes on the skin, but this is an honorable fast food potato product on texture alone.
I picked green beans for my other side. I know it was silly to leave mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese behind the counter, but I like to have the odd vegetable, plus I figured I should reward KFC's effort to offer a green thing other than Mountain Dew. Big mistake. These were so abysmal I didn't even finish the one bean I stabbed with my plastic fork. They were wet and brown and all the other awful things that canned-then-steamed vegetables tend to be.
It's fitting that the preliminary rounds of my boxed feast produced a yes, a no, and a maybe, because of course nothing can be settled until we get into the chicken. I started with the popcorn chicken, which was very good. The couple dozen marbles of white meat are heavy on the fried and light on the chicken, which is just as well since fast food chicken breast exists primarily as a vehicle for sauces and coatings, and the exterior of this rendition is top-notch. It's heavily salted, respectably peppered, and served at about 85 percent of the ideal crunch level. I'll eat more of these.
The Original Recipe fried thigh was a disaster, though. It was preposterously greasy with hot, slick torrents of slime escaping with every bite. The meat was a deep gray; people often say "gray" when they mean "off-white," but this stuff was gray like a battleship's brain. Disturbing. And even more contemptibly, the flabby, soggy skin ruins any chance the exterior may have had at crunching.
Stick with the skinless popcorn chicken.