The Best Fried Chicken on the Planet: An Opinionated World Tour

20150913-fried-chicken-best-world-primary.jpg

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt except where noted]

I don't know anyone who loves fried chicken as much as my wife. It's her greatest weakness. She'd rat her own mother out for a good buffalo wing. It's one of the three foods that has prevented her from going full-on vegetarian (hot dogs and beef jerky are the others). With a husband who cooks for a living, you'd think that for her birthday she'd want a fancy, home-cooked meal. Nope. All she wants is her annual box of Popeye's (I gladly indulge both her and myself). The only thing she loves more than fried chicken is travel. Luckily, with great fried chicken in all corners of the globe, it's not hard to combine those two great loves. As her third greatest love, I've been lucky enough to get to tag along.

You can travel around the world eating nothing but fried chicken. Here, in no particular order, are my picks for the crispiest, crunchiest, finger-lickingest fried chicken on the planet. Some are general preparations from a region of the world. Some are specific dishes at particular restaurants. Some are recipes you can make at home. All are crispy, meaty, and delicious.

I've tried my best not to double down on styles that are too similar. You're not going to see Southern-fried chicken and chicken-fried chicken and a fried chicken biscuit here. Let's just assume that if you put that chicken in a biscuit, I'm still gonna deem it worthy. Some fried chicken I've had has the potential to be great, but I simply have yet to try a version that blows me away (Indonesian ayam goreng, for instance). Some fried chicken that other people love, I simply don't get the appeal of. Chicken schnitzel or katsu or milanesa, for instance. Bread crumbs just aren't my thing, really.

And I'm sure there are a few great fried chicken dishes out there that simply slipped my mind like wings through greasy fingertips. Oops.

Point is, this is by no means intended to be a complete listing of all the great fried chicken in the world, for the simple fact that I have not yet had all the great fried chicken in the world. At least, I dearly hope not. Feel free to chime in with anything you think I've missed.

Korean Fried Chicken

20150709-best-fried-chicken-korean.jpg

I know I said that this list is unordered, but I'm going to come out and say right now that Korean-style fried chicken is the best fried chicken in the world. The crispest, crunchiest, tastiest version I've had came from a small restaurant in Busan, on the southern coast of South Korea. It came in three flavors—plain, soy, and chili. All three could've topped this list individually; together (along with the bottle of soju we ordered to wash them down), it's no contest.

Korean fried chicken is made with a double-frying process. The chicken gets coated in a thin, starchy batter, fried once, cooled, then fried again, like a good double-fried french fry. The resulting crust cracks like an eggshell, with a crispness that lingers even after the chicken's been tossed in a garlic-soy glaze or sweet-hot chili sauce. And you don't have to go to Busan to get it. Even the worldwide chains with American franchises like Bonchon or Kyochon do an admirable job.

And, of course, you can make it at home using my recipe.

Popeye's Original Fried Chicken From Anywhere

20150709-best-fried-chicken-popeyes.jpg

I have a theory that Popeye's serves the best Southern fried chicken you'll find in any city in the world (provided, of course, that said city has a Popeye's outpost). I have yet to be proven wrong. Now before you jump on me with your Federal Donuts this and your Charles' Pan Fried that, let me qualify this statement by saying I am speaking only of the fried chicken itself, in the vacuum of a blind taste test setting. There are other factors—ambience, history, service—that propel other fried chicken experiences above Popeye's, but I cannot think of a single fried chicken establishment where the experience would not have been improved by replacing its fried chicken with an extra-crispy thigh or drumstick from Popeye's.

Try this little experiment next time you're in the Popeye's hometown of New Orleans. Get yourself a three-piece meal from Popeye's, sneak it into Willie Mae's, and eat it there right next to a batch of Willie's fresh from the fryer. Even with the delay it takes to transport the Popeye's there, it's still tastier. It's a painful fact that may border on sacrilege, but we shouldn't run from the truth just because it hurts.

You want to up your game even more? Resist the urge to finish all your fried chicken on the fist day, refrigerate it, then fry it again the second day for fried chicken that's even better than Popeye's.

General Tso's Chicken From the Takeout Shop

20140328-general-tsos-chicken-recipe-food-lab-1.jpg

General Tso's, General Gau's, Ching's, Cho's, Jo's, or Chau's—whatever you want to call it, this is about as American as Chinese food can get, and no less delicious for it. Named after a famed real-life 19th century Chinese General, the dish nevertheless traces its origins back to a Hunanese ex-pat in Taiwan, though the modern deep-fried version was created in none other than New York City. Too often, food court-grade General Tso's is sickeningly sweet with greasy coatings so thick that it's difficult to tell whether there's even chicken hiding within. But the best versions of General Tso's have a balanced sauce that's equal parts sweet, spicy, and hot; breading that's crisp and greaseless; and juicy, tender chunks of marinated dark meat chicken hiding within.

That's the chicken I'm after.

Want to make it yourself? Here's our recipe for The Best General Tso's Chicken, or if you want to double up on fried chicken pleasure, use Popeye's chicken nuggets for a quick and cheaty version of General Tso's.

Chicken Fried Chicken With Gravy

20150709-best-fried-chicken-chicken-fried.jpg

[Photograph: Joshua Bousel]

"Chicken-fried steak" is beef that's been pounded, breaded, and fried in the manner of Southern Fried chicken (get our recipe here), so it makes sense that when you pound, bread, and fry chicken in the manner of chicken-fried steak, you end up with chicken-fried chicken. It's a twisted etymological path, but the dish is no less delicious for it.

It differs from standard Southern-fried chicken in two respects: First, it's made from thin, boneless cutlets or pounded chicken thighs, which means that the ratio of crispy seasoned breading to chicken is much higher than in regular fried chicken (I have yet to try it, but I imagine chicken-fried chicken skin with no meat at all would be pretty incredible, too). Second, it comes smothered in a creamy gravy that's heavily seasoned with black pepper. It's the fried chicken for those times when you feel like your Southern fried chicken has entirely too much meat. Or not enough gravy. Or both.

Cold Hot Fried Chicken From Nashville

20141016-hattie-b-hot-chicken-justin-chesney-1061.jpg

Hot fried chicken from Hattie B's in Nashville [Photographs: Justin Chesney]

You can't talk fried chicken without talking Nashville's most iconic food: Hot fried chicken. I think our contributor Susannah Felts put it best when she described Nashville Hot Chicken: "[It] takes something unassailably Southern, heavy, and indulgent—I'm talking regular fried chicken—and makes that dish seem like sissy food." The stuff is unapologetically, relentlessly, tongue-scorchingly spicy, even to a certified chili-freak like myself, with a crust seasoned heavily with cayenne pepper and paprika.

But here's the thing: I've only ever had it cold, and that was half a decade ago when former editor Erin Zimmer brought some back to the office after a trip to Nashville. Even day-old and cold the stuff has haunted my dreams. I'm headed back to Nashville this August for an Alt family reunion at which time I hope to plug this hole in my culinary education. I have every reason to believe it will live up to my expectations.

Xi'an-Style Fried Chicken Wings From Your Kitchen

20150125-xian-spicy-cumin-chili-sichuan-chicken-wings-recipe-7.jpg

You won't find these crispy chicken wings seasoned with Xi'an-style spices in the central Chinese city of Xi'an, or, in fact, in any restaurant that I know of (the "Chicken Wings With Explosive Red Chilies" from Mission Chinese Food in New York is the closest I know of) but I can't think of a better way to pay homage to one of my favorite food cities than by bringing its flavors home. Turns out crisply fried chicken, cumin, hot chilies, and numbing Sichuan peppercorns go together like cereal and milk. Really hot milk that will burn your face off in the most pleasurable way imaginable.

Even better, these wings can be made 100% in the oven using our unique baking powder-based dry rub for extra-crisp results. You can get the full recipe here.

Really Good Buffalo Wings

Buffalo wings are at the top of my wife's death row last meal request list. They're certainly the most iconic all-American sports bar snack around. But this leads to a problem: most of them just aren't very good. Let me tell you about the three most egregious and common buffalo wing offenses.

They aren't crisp enough. Buffalo wings must be crisp enough that they stay crisp, even after they're tossed in sauce; even after sitting in wax paper-lined plastic basket on your table for fifteen minutes; even after they've been dipped in blue cheese dressing. Please. Leave those suckers in the fryer long enough to crisp up!

They are breaded. I get it. You think breading makes things crispier, and we all want crisp buffalo wings, right? Sorry, pal. Buffalo wings are really no more than an excuse to eat deep-fried chicken skin. I want that skin to blister and bubble and get that rich, savory flavor that only direct oil-to-skin contact can produce. Leave the breading for the mozzarella sticks.

Not enough flats. Any true buffalo wing aficionado knows that the flats—that is, the middle section of the wing with two thin bones—are juicier, tastier, and offer a better skin-to-flesh ratio than the white meat drumettes.

Homemade sauces. You want to express your inner chef? Great. Put a special on the menu. Jazz up your nachos. Serve some "artisan" flatbread or whatever else bars like to get creative with these days. But leave my damn wings alone. Frank's and butter or bust.

If you don't have a local bar serving wings that fit all these criteria, don't worry, you can make them yourself using either my hardcore double-fried method or this oven-fried technique.

Chongqing-Style Dry-Fried Chicken With Chilies From Chongqing, China

20140629-chongqing-laziji.jpg

I've been eating this dish for ages in Sichuan-American restaurants. Picture this: bone-in, marinated chicken nuggets, deep-fried until crisp and slightly chewy, then stir-fried with Sichuan peppercorns and an absurd amount of bright red chilies. In the States it's usually sold in low-octane format (sometimes with battered boneless chicken chunks) under the name "Chicken with Chilies," a literal translation of the Sichuanese la zi ji. But it wasn't until last summer that I tasted it in its home town of Chongqing. It was a mind- and mouth-blowing experience. I mean, I knew it was supposed to be hot, but I wasn't prepared for the capsaicin overload it delivered.

Some versions—the bearable ones—combine the chicken with dried chilies alone. But the hottest combine the traditional dish with a pile of fresh green chilies. My mouth could handle it, but my stomach was begging for mercy. I had to throw in the towel about a quarter of the way through.

For the record, the dried chilies are there for aroma and are not intended to be eaten. That's something you quickly figure out after you make the mistake the first time.

Prawn Paste Chicken From Singapore

20150709-best-fried-chicken-singapore.jpg

I can't for the life of me understand what the inventor of prawn paste chicken was thinking. Let's take this by-catch of way-too-tiny shrimp, let it rot and dry in the sun for a bit, grind it into a paste, rub it on our chicken, and deep fry it a couple times. That'll be delicious!

But while I can't understand it, I'm certainly glad it happened—turns out they were totally on point. Singapore-style prawn paste chicken can be found in most of the city's hawker centers or homestyle Chinese diners. After resting in a simple marinade of shrimp paste, oyster sauce, and sugar, chicken pieces are dipped in cornstarch and then fried twice—just like Korean-style fried chicken—until they're all kinds of crisp and juicy. The dish comes with a spicy chili sauce for dipping, though frankly I like the wings just fine on their own.

It's the perfect dish if you love Korean fried chicken but wish it were a little more...rank. I haven't seen the dish outside of Singapore, but if you can't get there and want to taste it yourself, we've got you covered with a simple recipe.

Karaage From Japan

Nankotsu karaage from Jin Ramen in Harlem

Kara-age literally translates to "fried Chinese-style," but like other dishes that Japan has adopted from China (think ramen and gyoza), they've made it all their own. It starts with marinating chunks of boneless chicken (chicken thigh is great, chicken breast is okay, but the very best is nankotsu karaage, made with crisp chicken breast cartilage) in garlic, ginger, and soy sauce, tossing it in starch (I use a mix of corn or potato starch with flour), and deep frying it until crisp. It comes served simply with a slice of lemon.

As a bar or street snack, karaage is tough to beat. It's lighter, gentler, less greasy, and neater to eat than any other fried chicken on this list, and no less delicious for it. You can turn your home into an izakaya using this recipe.

Gai Tod From Thai Street Vendors

20150709-best-fried-chicken-thai-2.jpg

Thai-style fried chicken generally comes served with plenty of nourishing-but-bland sticky rice, which means that the chicken has to have enough flavor to season the entire plate of food. This is accomplished with an intense marinade made with garlic, coriander seed, white pepper, coriander roots, and oyster sauce that goes directly on the raw chicken. Then the chicken rests overnight before being coated in a rice flour batter.

But it's the frying that's the most interesting part. Where most other cultures would say, "Okay, that fried chicken is done," the Thai keep cooking. And cooking. The chicken is fried a good 10 to 15 minutes longer than you'd expect, leading to an outer layer of meat that almost shreds apart like floss.

20150709-best-fried-chicken-thai.jpg

You'd think that this would inevitably make the chicken dry, but the powerfully seasoned marinade actually allows chicken proteins to retain moisture better than un-marinated chicken, even after excessive cooking. The finished chicken is anything but dry.

To make it at home, I turn to my source for all things Thai: Shesimmers.com. Leela's recipe for Thai-style fried chicken is as delicious as it is simple.