Depending on who you ask and what subjective gerrymandering is involved, you may or may not lump Washington, DC in with the American South. Cultural geography notwithstanding, DC is still a town that can boast some solid Southern-style fried chicken.
Despite the transient nature of the city's people and restaurant fads, fried chicken is as much a staple in DC as it is anywhere else, though the onset of the doughnuts and fried chicken craze from 2013 did yield a crop of new and notable contenders. From low to high brow, tiny take out counters to downtown hot spots, great fried chicken in DC comes in all forms.
In our search for the best fried chicken in the District, we restricted ourselves to Southern-style (due respect to Bonchon) and Metro accessible shops (though Bryan Voltaggio's Family Meal in Frederick has fried chicken that is absolutely worth the 40 minute drive north.) We focused on chicken that nailed the combination of flavorful, crispy skin and juicy, tender meat. So here are six spots in DC with fantastic fried chicken.
Best Result of the Chicken & Doughnuts Trend: Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken
One of the pioneers of the doughnuts and fried chicken phenomenon from the past year, Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken has become a staple for fried chicken in the heart of DC. Sure, doughnuts might get first billing in the name with flavors like Boston Cream and Brooklyn Blackout, but Astro's classic buttermilk fried chicken should not be missed.
The chicken is classically brined and salted, but there are hints of cayenne and other spices in the batter that lend a subtle heat to the proceedings. The skin is crisp and not over-salted—you could eat handfuls of it on its own as a snack and not feel disgusting. Special mention goes to the Sriracha glazed wings which have the same juicy meat, but encased in a sweet, spicy veneer. They're as delicious as they sound.
Best High Brow Birds: Central Michel Richard
A classic French-American bistro that's been heralded as one of the best restaurants in Downtown for years, Central draws regular crowds for its upscale, Gallic comfort food. Richard's decidedly American influence comes in to play with his well documented love of KFC.
Richard was inspired by the fast food chain, and his fried chicken takes notes from KFC's extra crispy texture. He recreates that texture using day-old bread crumbs and chicken "mayonnaise" (raw chicken shavings, chicken stock, and milk) instead of eggs for the batter. The result is a supremely elevated form of the KFC baseline. The skin is delicately crisp with an organic, unprocessed texture; the meat is plump and dripping with flavor. As an added bonus and true to French form, the bed of pomme purée that the chicken is served with is decadently creamy and buttery. It rounds out the satisfyingly heavy meal.
For a Great Bird and Great Sides: Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab
Joe's makes it way to DC by way of Miami and is known for its titular shelled delicacy. (Steps from the White House, the restaurant is a prime spot for spotting the most powerful people in the world cracking crustaceans.) That said, you should order the fried chicken.
An unexpected standout on the menu, Joe's fried chicken is your standard Southern buttermilk-brined bird, save for the introduction of cracker meal in the breading. The cracker meal introduces a granular texture to the skin and lends a depth to the crunch that is inexplicably satisfying to bite into. The half chicken is succulent and pleasantly unassuming. Bring help though, because the sides are just as delicious. The sweet corn is a bowl of instantly addictive kernels of butter, cilantro, and lime; the wild mushroom mac and cheese is slathered in rich Fontina and Asiago cheese and given an extra dimensions with mixed-in cracker meal bread crumbs, similar to the chicken.
Best Homestyle: Oohs and Aahs
Oohs and Aahs occupies the same reverential space for Washingtonians as places like Fast Gourmet. Many a weekend bar-hopper will have found themselves at Oohs and Aahs simply because it was open (until 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays) only to find that they'd stumbled onto one of the best soul food shops in town. From fried catfish to ribs, collards to mac n' cheese, Oohs and Aahs slings the gamut of down home cooking out of a tiny, barely shoulder width space with a makeshift upstairs dining room that looks like a church meeting room from the 80s. Order some fried chicken wings and you'll see the cooks fry them to order and serve them glistening in a foil-lined styrofoam container. The skin gives way with a satisfying crunch to the steaming insides. There isn't anything fancy going on; it's just hearty, satisfying soul food that sticks to your ribs. At 4 a.m. We've all had those nights and Oohs and Aahs is a godsend.
Best Takeout Bird: Pearl Dive Oyster Palace
Pearl Dive is an oyster bar that serves fried chicken. And that's perfectly fine. The fried chicken is available to dine in, but the best way by far to enjoy this bird is to order it to go by the bucket. The legs and thighs are braised first, seasoned with Latin spices, then fried. This results in chicken that's unbelievably juicy with skin thats just browned enough and doesn't come apart from the perfectly fried meat. The spices lend a subtle bite to the flavor. Also in the bucket are scallion corn muffins, spicy slaw, and bacon braised greens, which are ideal complements to the stellar fried chicken and round out probably one of the best picnic meals you're likely to have.
For a Classic Chicken: Ray's: To The Third
The halcyon days of Michael Landrum's expanding empire of Ray's restaurants may be behind us, but that doesn't mean they're still not serving up some quality meals. Most people may think of burgers and steaks upon hearing the name Ray's to the Third (formerly Ray's Hellburger), but Ray's also fries a mean chicken. Offering an unadorned, baseline bird, Ray's fried chicken is simply made with salt, pepper, flour, and buttermilk. Fried to a crisp, juicy, and balanced ideal, Ray's bird is as classic as it comes.
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