McHardy's Chicken & Fixin: New Orleans, LA
In the neatly decorated, modest storefront of McHardy's, there were wire bins overflowing with breasts, wings, drumsticks, and thighs; in the back of the bins were metal frying troughs that allow chicken pieces to be fried in large quantities, utilizing a process best described as halfway between pan frying and deep frying in a Fryolator. One bite into a drumstick and we knew we’d found something remarkable. The crust was thin and applied so artfully we couldn't distinguish between it and the skin. The bird was perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper, and just a little garlic. No cayenne needed, thank you very much. Even the white meat, always a tricky proposition, was juicy and tender. We asked the owner where she learned to cook chicken like that. "From my mother, of course," she said with a smile.
1458 North Broad Street, New Orleans, LA 70119; (504) 949-0000
Bailey and Catoe: Nashville, TN
When we drove up to Bailey and Catoe, we loved everything about the place—the little wooden house it was tucked into, the unpretentious, understated signage. But we got there 15 minutes before it opened—and while we were walking around, checking out the hairstylist next door, we noticed the small parking lot was filling up fast. So we hurried back to be the first through the door. We ordered the fried chicken and were told it would be awhile. When it finally hit our table, just seconds out of the fryer, the chicken had the kind of spicy, cracklingly crisp skin we dream about. Moral of the story? Good fried chicken comes to those who wait.
1307 McGavock Pike, Nashville, TN 37216; (615) 227-4694
Izola’s: Chicago, IL
To say that Izola’s on Chicago’s South Side is stuck in a time warp is something of an understatement. “Minimum in the dining room: $2.20,” reads the menu. “Your wife a bum cook? Eat at IZOLA’S!” entreats a sign behind the bar. Only the 10-foot Obama photo gives you any sense of what decade it is. But no matter—they make some of the finest fried chicken we’ve ever had. The deep brown crust crackles under the teeth, a highly seasoned, unbelievably tasty prelude to the super-moist meat. We can’t vouch for much else on the menu (though the chicken and pea soup is mighty tasty), but we’d drive from anywhere in Chicago for this fried chicken.
522 East 79th Street, Chicago, IL; (773) 846-1484
Charles' Country Pan-Fried Chicken: New York, NY
The legendary Charles Gabriel is perhaps New York's greatest fried chicken cook. Over the years, he's run fried chicken trucks, partnered with New York restaurateurs, and more; in recent years, he's returned to Harlem, having reopened his much-loved bare-bones soul food restaurant there. Charles learned his craft near Charlotte, North Carolina; he cooks the chicken in huge, black cast iron skillets, the way many purists insist it be cooked. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, Charles's chicken comes out of those pans miraculously free of grease. Even the breasts are tender and juicy. His constant attention to the frying chicken ensures that it's always fried just right. Note: One of Charles's current outposts, Rack and Soul, in the shadow of Columbia University, will serve you fried chicken that is not fried to order. Resist the temptation for instant fried chicken gratification and tell them you want your chicken fried to order—they’ll happily oblige.
2839 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10039; (212) 281-1800
Babe's Chicken Dinner House: Roanoke, TX
At Babe's Chicken Dinner House, a cavernous old hardware store-turned-restaurant near Forth Worth in the tiny town of Roanoke, the only choice involved in ordering your meal is whether you have chicken fried steak or fried chicken. While that’s kind of a great choice, and Babe's chicken fried steak is swell, there's a reason it's called Babe's Chicken House. This is fine fried chicken, as juicy-crunchy as a chicken-lover could hope for. Iceberg lettuce, creamed corn, biscuits, and mashed potatoes appear at your table, along with cream gravy that you won’t feel compelled to use. "We work so hard at keeping it fresh," says Mary Beth Vinyard (aka Babe), who owns the restaurant (and several others of the same name) with her husband. "It tastes just like it came out of your grandmother's kitchen. That's really our goal--to make you feel like you're eating in your grandmother's home."
Barbecue Inn: Houston, TX
Barbecue Inn is a misnomer if ever there were one--because these folks fry like you wouldn't believe. The fried chicken leaves their barbecue in the dust. Imagine a fried chicken breast that is so juicy it squirts you in the eye when you take a bite: that's what happens at Barbecue Inn. The crust and skin fuse together beautifully; they're so crunchy you can hear each bite three tables away. And they salt this bird just as much as you could hope for. All the chicken is fried to order, so you'll never find yourself stuck with the warming tray rejects.
116 West Crosstimbers Road, Houston TX 77018; (713) 695-8112
Stroud's: Kansas City, MO
Stroud's fried chicken is paradigmatic: crunchy-crusted, the fat underneath the skin almost completely rendered, and dark meat that was explosively juicy and moist. We’ve found that some Kansas City locals speak poorly of Stroud's, but we’re wondering if the naysayers are just trying to convince others that KC had moved beyond fried chicken and barbecue. Both are still fantastic. The moist but not-too-sticky cinnamon buns make a most excellent dessert.
Willie Mae's Scotch House: New Orleans, LA
What can the finest fried chicken inspire others to do? Willie Mae's Seaton's shotgun shack of a restaurant was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina--the Treme neighborhood in which it stands was flooded for weeks. But the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization documenting Southern food history, rallied fans and supporters from across the country to come and physically rebuild Willie Mae's Scotch House--fueled by one meal of fried chicken each day. The restaurant reopened in 2007. It's now run by Willie Mae's granddaughter, Kerry Seaton, who's still using her grandmother's methods--wet batter, salt and pepper--to miraculous effect.
2401 Saint Ann Street, New Orleans, LA 70119; (504) 822-9503
Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken: Mason and Memphis, TN
The Gus’s location in Memphis is one wide juke joint of a room, barely lit and decorated with unlit Christmas lights strung on the beams. If you’re told your chicken will take 20 minutes, it’ll probably be more like 45. But that’s okay: this is fried chicken as God meant it to be: with a gorgeous burnished brown, lacquered crunchy exterior that achieves that mystical, cosmic oneness between skin and crust and juicy, moist chicken flesh within. It’s all perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper and just enough cayenne pepper to let you know it's there.
505 Highway 70 West, Mason, TN 38049; (901) 294 2028
Frenchy's Chicken: Houston, TX
Though Percy "Frenchy" Creuzot Jr. (one of the great food names of all time) died in 2010, his fried chicken lives on. The man had a most excellent fried chicken pedigree; Frenchy came to Houston from New Orleans, where he was an old family friend of the late, great, New Orleans fried chicken master, Austin Leslie. There are always long lines at Frenchy's, which is actually good news for fans of fried chicken—the longer the line, the greater your odds of getting chicken that's fresh from the deep fryer. Served up hot, Frenchy's Creole-style chicken (seasoned with garlic and cayenne) is juicy, salty, and just spicy enough. Frenchy's is a mini-chain, but prolific Texas food writer Robb Walsh, who knows more about Texan food than any other person on the planet, swears by the original Scott Street location.
Various locations; www.frenchyschicken.com
Price's Chicken Coop: Charlotte, NC
Joining the ranks of Izola’s in the deep-fried corner of our fried chicken pantheon is Price’s Chicken Coop, a pleasingly chaotic chicken shack that’s been around since 1952, when Charlotte was a very different place. Be ready with your order—in this South End stop, a more savvy patron might fight to get his in first—but know that it’s worth the hassle to fight the good fight. A properly deep-fried crust is a thing of beauty: thick, crunchy, and so good you’d want a mouthful even without all that chicken underneath. Price’s accomplishes all that, but with supremely moist chicken that’s just as tasty as its fried shell. There’s no place to sit (or even, really, to stand) at Price’s, so head out to the hood of your car.
Colonnade: Atlanta, GA
Around since 1927, the Colonnade is best experienced on Sunday afternoons, when the after-church crowd is putting back the fried chicken. Don’t fill up on the tender yeast rolls, delicious as they may be—far better to save room for the well-seasoned, super-moist chicken with a perfectly crunchy crust. As always, don’t mind the slow service if it means your chicken is that much closer to the fryer.