Tucked-away roadside stands, no-frills decor, carefully-guarded recipes—we’re used to thinking of fried chicken in a very specific context, steeped in rural tradition and Americana lore. And while in many ways this image still holds true, fried chicken’s influence has outgrown its humble beginnings, gaining a steady national following in the process. It looks like America has fallen in love with the gold-crusted bird all over again.
Fried chicken’s roots can be traced back to a mid 18th-century recipe from Great Britain, but the version we know today took hold in the American South, where enslaved African American cooks perfected the dish in Big House kitchens. “It was a special occasions food, typically eaten on Sundays during springtime using young chickens,” says Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard award-winning book Soul Food.
With the rise of agricultural farming in the early 1900s, the status of chicken eventually transformed, too. In the ’50s, fast-food convenience culture took off, and franchises like KFC showed that there was a viable market for fried chicken across the country—even around the world.
And it would be ignorant to dismiss other traditions that have long held sway. “Americans are kind of presumptuous to assume that we own fried chicken,” said Roy Choi in a Wall Street Journal article. “It’s been done in Korea at least as long, and in China a long time before that.”
Due to crude stereotypes, perhaps no other food is as divisive or laden with cultural baggage as fried chicken. And yet paradoxically, few foods are so universally beloved on a fundamental level. Maybe because it’s a recipe that can be riffed on endlessly. Do you dry- or wet-brine the bird? Vegetable oil or lard? Skillet-fried or finished in the oven?
Big-time chefs like Thomas Keller and David Chang have also gotten in on the action, offering versions at Bouchon and Momofuku. And with the rise of American regional comfort foods, more and more fried-chicken concept restaurants are popping up on both coasts. “We’re in a fried-chicken renaissance,” says Miller.
From hot chicken infused with cayenne pepper in Tennessee, to double-fried Korean pub-style wings in Los Angeles, the vast landscape for bucket-list–worthy battered poultry requires some trusty navigators. Which is why we summoned soul-food scholars, top-tier chefs, and other golden-bird adoring writers and obsessives to give you a kick-start. Here is our esteemed panel:
- Edward Lee, chef/owner of 610 Magnolia
- Ludo Lefebvre, chef/owner of Trois Mec, Petit Trois, and LudoBird
- Sean Brock, chef at Husk Restaurant
- Lee Schrager, author of Fried & True; Vice President of Corporate Communications & National Events for Southern Wine & Spirits of America
- Jed Portman, assistant editor at Garden & Gun
- Carolyn Bane, chef/owner of Pies ‘n’ Thighs
- Adrian Miller, aka The Soul Food Scholar, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at at Time
- Jean-Paul Bourgeois, executive chef at Blue Smoke
- Eric Park, chef at Black Hogg
- Luke Wetzel, chef at Oven & Tap
- Curren$y, New Orleans-based rapper
- Fata Wijaya, chef at Carb & Nation
- Jeff McInnis, executive chef at Root & Bone
- Wylie Dufresne, executive chef at Alder
- Erin Scott, writer and founder of audiochic; Scott wrote her thesis on Mississippi gas station food
- Linton Hopkins, executive chef at Holeman and Finch
- Josh Lurie, founder of Food GPS
For some deeply satisfying yardbird, follow the lead of these experts.
Where: Houston, TX
Edward Lee says: “I like my fried chicken salty, even on the verge of being over-salted, with the crunch and salinity hitting you simultaneously. Then the oil and chicken juice coats the inside of your mouth. I enjoy the distinct taste of carbonized grease that comes from frying oil exhausted from overuse—it’s the good kind of burnt. All this comes to mind when I think about Frenchy’s, a Cajun joint started by Percy “Frenchy” Creuzot in 1969. Frenchy’s sells po-boys and bayou specialities, but it was the fried chicken that made the place famous. It’s the only thing I’ve ever ordered. Bun B, the famed Houston rapper, introduced me to the Frenchy’s down in the Third Ward. Bun said it was his favorite, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I love the metal picnic tables—like something you’d see in a prison yard—enclosed in a screened-in area. The place is always packed because we’re all here for the same thing: that damn salty fried chicken. Sometimes a pigeon gets in and nervously walks the perimeter, looking for crumbs of chicken crust that wind up on the floor. That’s a damn lucky bird.” (Photo: Frenchy’s/Facebook)
Big Mama’s Kitchen
Where: Omaha, NE
Ludo Lefebvre says: “While traveling across country and filming my docu-series Ludo Bites America, I discovered one of the most amazing fried-chicken spots called Big Mama’s in Omaha. The crazy thing about this place is that it’s located inside the cafeteria of a defunct school campus—formerly the Nebraska School for the Deaf. I have brought LudoBites to some surprising places, but this was truly so cool and unexpected. They have decorated it with great vintage family photos and old kitchen utensils to make it feel homey. What impressed me the most is that Patricia “Big Mama” Barron did not open the restaurant until she was 65 years old. She took me right into the kitchen and showed me how to make “the best friend chicken.” I can’t really argue with her (well, maybe LudoBird can rival it). Barron first marinates the chicken in a blend of spices and buttermilk for 24 hours, then covers it in self-rising flour before frying it to perfection in the oven. This process creates an unbelievably flaky, crunchy crust and keeps the meat perfectly moist. What I love most about it is that it’s never greasy, so I don’t feel guilty when I eat it. I would be utterly happy to be in Omaha at this very moment, having some of Big Mama’s fried chicken.” (Photo courtesy Ludo Lefebvre)
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
Where: Nashville, TN
Sean Brock says: “After a good, hard night of honky-tonk, Jameson shots, and cheap American beer, your belly is screaming for something to soak up all the action. In Nashville, you don’t have a whole lot of choices at that hour, but those in the know head straight to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The line is insane at 2am, and the people-watching alone is worth making the trek into a pretty rough part of town in the middle of the night. But this is all part of the hot-chicken experience. The first time I ate at Prince’s, I went for it—I honestly didn’t know any better. With hot chicken it’s tricky. Most of us who eat spicy food as a hobby are used to the immediate burn of fresh chiles, but nothing can prepare you for the cayenne powder in this hot chicken. It travels through the blood stream like a snake in the grass; you never see that bite coming. When it hits your brain, you’re immediately taken to another realm of reality. Time stops, your ears ring, your vision becomes blurry, your ears start to tingle, and the voices around you are just thoughts in the distance. Quite literally, hot chicken makes you hallucinate. If you order the hottest version they make, it’s a total out-of-body experience for a few minutes. The chicken becomes more a form of weird pleasure and entertainment than just filling your tummy up because you are drunk and hungry.
The story of Prince’s is the stuff of legend. The recipe began as punishment for a guy who had been misbehaving and needed to be taught a lesson. Turns out he loved it so much that he opened Prince’s, and the rest is history. These days in Nashville there are several restaurants that specialize in hot chicken, and just about every chef in town riffs on it in some form or fashion, myself included. It’s hard not to; it speaks of the culture. Hot chicken is the first thing that I take out-of-towners to experience when they visit Music City. It belongs to Nashville, and we are damn proud of it.” (Photo: Jenni Stenman)
Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken
Where: Harlem, NY
Lee Schrager says: “You might not necessarily think that Harlem would be home to some of the most authentic Southern fried chicken around, but Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken makes it so. The son of sharecroppers from North Carolina, Charles Gabriel has been frying birds since he was nine or ten years old. When we visited him for my last cookbook, Fried & True: More Than 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken & Sides, one of the main things we were astounded by is the enormity of the cast-iron skillet he uses. Covering four stovetop burners and capable of handling up to 25 pieces of chicken at a time, Charles’ bathtub for his birds is an impressive sight—and watching him work with it even more so. Dredged with a classically simple coating, every bite of his chicken has the perfect balance of crunch and juicy meat that only a well-greased master can create. His passion for his food runs deep—often spending a good chunk of time each day personally sourcing produce for the made-in-house sides, yielding a love you can taste. But the star of the show is certainly the fried chicken, which he pays his respects to by never taking his eyes away from that giant skillet when frying.” (Photo courtesy Evan Sung)
Where: Multiple locations
Jed Portman says: “If the fried chicken at Publix came from a rusty buffet in some out-of-the-way farm town, or a locals-only hangout hidden on an urban side street, the food media would likely have exhausted all discussion of the stuff with mouthwatering odes to its salty golden shell and tender interior. As is, the excellent chicken is a casualty of its sterile surroundings—on the national stage, anyway. Here in the Carolinas, and also in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, folks line up at the deli counter after work and church for take-home boxes of fried bird that beats the soggy offerings at other grocery stores as handily as hot sides of green beans, collard greens, and stewed tomatoes and okra beat pasty wraps and past-their-prime salads. It may be the mass-produced fare of a corporate chain, but we like it. (Photo: Yelp)
Wayside Ole’ Virginia Fried Chicken
Where: Charlottesville, VA
Carolyn Bane says: “I recently went to a wedding in Charlottesville, VA, and a friend or ours told us to grab a bite at Ole’ Virginia Fried Chicken. Upon arrival, I could immediately see it’s the kind of place all kinds of people go to. Ole’ Virginia is located in a nondescript building at a funny intersection near UVA. We kept missing it and had to loop around and around. (Probably my husband’s driving.) Inside it’s sparsely decorated with bright blue curtains and gold chair rail, plus photos of college sports teams. There are molded formica benches (which I love) and diner seats that are unusually short and alternate blue and orange. It is vaguely Mets-y, but surely these are Virginia colors. Oh, and the chicken!—crispy with a seasoned breading, which we don’t do at Pies ‘n’ Thighs, but is something I really loved. The crunchy fresh slaw is my platonic ideal, sweet but tangy, plus it has celery seeds. Then I tasted the baked beans, heavy on the molasses and black pepper. I ordered mashed potatoes with gravy; they were probably powdered spuds, but delicious nonetheless. You order at the counter, and I firmly believe this no-frills kind of place should be around forever.” (Photo: readthehook.com)
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
Where: Memphis, TN and other locations
Adrian Miller says: “For me, superlative fried chicken has a thin, crunchy crust, moist meat, and seasoning by a cook who showed enough restraint with piquant spices to leave a slow burn in my mouth rather than an unquenchable fire. Such fried chicken, perhaps in its platonic form, can be found at one of the various locations for Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. Gus’s traces its roots to a small restaurant in Mason, TN started in the 1950s by an African American couple, Napoleon (“Na”) and Maggie Bonner. Today, Gus’s has outlets in its native Tennessee (Bartlett, Collierville, and Memphis); Little Rock, AR; Oxford, MS; and Austin, TX. With an interior design that evokes the juke joints of yesteryear, diners get fried chicken that is made-to-order instead of a bird getting an artificial tan under a heat lamp. Rest assured, good things definitely come to those who wait!” (Photo: hungermaps.com)
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
Where: New Orleans, LA
Jean-Paul Bourgeois says: “In the Tremé neighborhood, on Saint Ann Street, in the most soulful city in America, stands a true fried-chicken institution. Willie Mae’s Scotch House has been pumping out Creole food for the last 40 years. Originating as a bar operating without a beer license, it soon became known for its minimal scotch selections and eventually as a beacon for soul food and incredible Creole cuisine. The Willie Mae fried-chicken recipe is a secret that the chef will not let go of easily. She does, however, admit that an important part of the recipe comes in the form of a “wet dunk”, which yields a crunchy exterior that incubates succulent and juicy white and dark meat. The batter is not just crispy—it’s crunchy. Of course, no fried-chicken lunch would be complete without the famous red beans and butter beans that are cooked fresh daily for the ravaging lunch crowd. At Blue Smoke, I was inspired to use a similar technique of “dunk and dredge” for my fried chicken. Fresh Goffle Road Poultry Farm chicken is first dunked in highly seasoned wet batter and then dredged in seasoned flour. Served with pillowy buttermilk biscuits and Steen’s cane syrup, the dish conjures up memories of my childhood growing up in the bayous of south Louisiana.” (Photo: itsfeedingtime.com)
Where: Koreatown, Los Angeles
Eric Park says: “Some of the best fried chicken in this country can be found right here in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Served in many traditional Korean pubs, the chicken is butterflied and fried whole. There is no batter or breading. It is merely fried twice—a confit of sorts. The first fry is at a low temp to slow cook the meat and make it super tender. The second fry is to give it a super crispy, flavorful skin. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper, it is amazing: juicy, savory, crisp on the outside, and melt-in-your-mouth tender on the inside. The best version can be found at The Prince, one of the oldest Korean pubs in the area, housed in a funky 1920s hotel. The chicken is served with pickled radish, cole slaw, salt and pepper, and hot sauce. Drink it with an OB beer at the horseshoe bar and enjoy some of the best fried chicken you’ll ever eat.” (Photo courtesy NJinLA)
Where: Bentonville, AR
Luke Wetzel says: “The Hive’s ‘BMF’ Chicken is unique in a lot of ways. First and foremost, consider the bird. The Hive sought out an ‘all-Arkansas’ bird from Spence at Across The Creek Farms, just 45 miles south of the restaurant. These birds are born in the state, raised on pasture and local non-GMO grains, and processed just down the road from the farm. Any chicken designated for frying first soaks in a sugar-salt brine with hints of bay and black pepper for several hours before receiving a light dusting of locally milled flour and spiced buttermilk bath. After the chicken gets a second dredge in the flour, it’s deep-fried, creating a crisp, craggy exterior. For brunch, the bird is finished with a generous helping of “hot honey” made with local honey, cayenne, and marash pepper; for lunch, it’s dusted with house-made togarashi. The BMF stands for Buttermilk Fried; however, it’s open to rather obvious alternate interpretations when you take the first bite!” (Photo courtesy Matt McClure)
Harold’s Chicken Shack
Where: Multiple locations in Chicago, IL
Curren$y says: “The first time I had Harold’s, a South Side fried-chicken chain, was back in 2008. My homies brought some to the studio after the session had finished and my mind flipped. There’s no way I could ever go back to Chicago without tasting some. Harold’s is a staple in almost every neighborhood, but the way people appreciate it is different from other franchises. It’s not like, ‘Oh f**k, here’s another one popping up'; in places that don’t have one, people ask, ‘When are we going to get one?’ Everyone thinks that the Harold’s on their street is the best one, but I don’t get in the middle of that since I’m not from there. I always order the six piece mild, with sauce on the chicken and fries, plus an additional side of sauce in case you want to slather some more on it. If you had to describe the sauce, you could say it’s the essence of Sade’s Love Deluxe album over chicken and fries, with a garment of seven herbs and spices. Harold’s is the perfect balance between restaurant-style and corner-store chicken. It’s where the two worlds meet. Think of it this way: It’s like me at Ruth’s Chris Steak house dining with basketball shorts and a chicken evening gown. I have a love affair with this place—I even have a Harold’s t-shirt, and someone made me chicken-patterned socks. As much as Chicago loves the Bulls, they love Harold’s.” (Photo: hgjones.com)
Merry’s House of Chicken
Where: West Covina, CA
Fata Wijaya says: “Indonesian fried chicken is not your typical battered bird. Process and presentation set it apart from any other tradition. The chicken is marinated with blended spices (for sometimes as long as 12 hours) and cooked in coconut water. All the reduced liquid that’s left in the pan is saved and mixed with thickening agents to make a batter. After the chicken is flash-fried, the batter is fried separately until golden brown to make what are called kremas—crunchy fried batter crumbs. At Merry’s, they top their fried chicken with kremas and serve it with home made sambal, a lime wedge, and a slice of cucumber. You can eat the kremas separately, but the best way to eat is to gather the kremas, chicken, and sambal, then scoop it all up with rice for one delicious bite.” (Photo: Yelp)
Where: Sharm el Sheik, Egypt
Jeff McInnis says: “As a boy growing up in the South, I saw fried chicken often: Lunch room cafeterias at school; my grandma Bryce’s chicken farm; mom’s weekly dinner rotation; the local diner on John Sims Parkway, Danny’s; or even the Colonel’s or Popeye’s. They all had more than one thing in common—Southern-fried chicken technique, made in a Southern town, served to Southern folks. But one of my most memorable fried chicken experiences took place away from home. When I was in my late 20s, I worked for The Ritz-Carlton in a Lebanese kitchen as chef de cuisine. I was put on a ‘task force team’ by upper management where I was blessed to travel around the world and assist culinary programs for many of the other Ritz hotels. In 2006, I traveled to Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, where I worked with flavors and techniques that I’d only read about.
One of the first chefs I met when I arrived to Egypt was El Sayed Basyon, who was in charge of the fine-dining restaurant Fayrouz, a Lebanese-Arabic restaurant named after a gorgeous opera singer from Lebanon. The dining room had a tandoori oven made of a beige clay brick, and from the patio you could see the Red Sea. In the lounge area there was a gentleman named Amget, who sat around a charcoal fire making coffee and hot tea in the desert heat of 36-degrees Celsius. Next to him were 20 hookahs with the Ritz-Carlton logos painted on them by a local artist. The first evening I was at Fayrouz, they were hosting a large family-style buffet. When reading through the menu and beginning production for the day, I was excited to see an Arabic-style fried chicken listed on the menu. Chef El Sayed took his time with this dish and had me assist him in the prep work. First, we rinsed the chicken in cold water then put it in a large container where we poured yogurt over the chicken. The yogurt had a strong, earthy flavor with lots of cumin and saffron infused into it. We let the chicken rest in this yogurt for six hours. We removed the chicken and dredged it in a mix of chickpea flour, cornstarch, and spices. Just before dinner, we heated grape seed oil in a large wok over the tandoori oven outside and fried the chicken in large batches.
The chicken cooked up perfectly: There was a yellow coloring to the bird and an aroma of exotic spices that was beyond exciting to me. When we plated the dish, it was served with pickled limes, rose petals, and walnuts. It was nothing like any fried chicken I’d ever seen in my life, much less had the honor of cooking. Later that evening, the chef and I sat on his dining room porch discussing food and culture while we finished off a few plates of the chicken. We each had our own hookah with very high-end shisha and tea brought from Amget—all while watching the moon shine over the Red Sea.”
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Wylie Dufresne says: “For me, it’s about the chicken tenders. They are particularly crispy, with a good ratio of crunch to meat. And it stays crispy improbably long. We should all aspire to have our chicken breading be as good as theirs. I’m just a huge fan. I even served Popeyes at my wedding! I’m not sure how they do it, but they hands down have the crispiest chicken around. And a pretty solid biscuit too.” (Photo: pixgood.com)
Blue and White Restaurant
Where: Tunica, MS
Erin Scott says: “A pulsating neon sign on top of an old canopy that once sheltered gas pumps lures travelers and locals alike to the Blue and White restaurant. Located on Mississippi’s famed Blues Highway (US 61), this gem has been a local staple for more than 75 years. Make the detour off the interstate or take the ten-minute drive from the casino buffets for a Southern home-cooking experience. The decor takes cues from its name, and regulars will tell you it’s a little bluer now than in the past. Originally a Pure Oil gas station, the Blue and White has existed in many forms: a bus stop, a newsstand, and a full service station. In earlier days, when Memphis was the shopping mecca for many Delta residents, a day trip included a stop in Tunica. The menu reminds customers that good food takes time: Everything is made from scratch. Fried chicken is a featured favorite on Fridays and Sundays, and the bird comes out fresh, hot, and crispy. The close-knit kitchen staff prepares other specialties like chicken and dumplings, chicken livers, and the doughnut tower dessert. On my first visit, I chatted with a regular at the next table. I was surprised to discover his wife’s chicken take-out order was chilling in the kitchen refrigerator because she prefers her cold. Hot or cold, dine-in or take-home, the chicken at Blue and White serves it up like grandma’s Sunday lunch.” (Photo: Yelp)
Where: Blakely, GA
Linton Hopkins says: “If you are driving through south Georgia, Blakely Chicken is worthy of a detour. This walk-up chicken stand, with a single picnic table out front, is no-frills rather than chef-driven, and serves fried chicken for the purist. Fresh and juicy, the chicken is made in front of you in deep-fat fryers. I like its simplicity, and what makes it so craveable is the crispy skin and spice blend. I also like that they serve chicken livers—that’s sign of a good chicken place.” (Photo: chazzwilliams.blogspot.com)
Tokyo Fried Chicken Co.
Where: Monterey Park, CA
Josh Lurie says: “I’ve eaten at plenty of places that belong in the fried-chicken pantheon, including Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville and Stroud’s in Kansas City, but they’ve got one important factor working against them; they’re not in Los Angeles! L.A. is clearly America’s most exciting eating city at the moment, and the fried-chicken destination that really captures the city’s vibe is Tokyo Fried Chicken Co., which puts an Asian spin on yardbird in a Monterey Park strip mall. Chef Kouji Yamanashi, who grew up in the Japanese-American stronghold of Torrance, found inspiration in karaage, but unlike the popular Japanese appetizer, Yamanashi fries his bird on the bone. The result is terrific: dark meat is marinated in garlic, ginger, onions, soy sauce, and other secret ingredients, then deep-fried in rice wine oil until crispy like tempura. Bear-shaped squeeze bottles are placed on the table, but instead of drizzling honey, they pour savory ponzu. Sides are also atypical, including mac and cheese with molten white cheddar and nori strips; and blistered shishito peppers tossed with miso and arare, tiny Japanese crackers. Bonus: Kouji Yamanashi is a craft-beer fan and serves bottles from local breweries.” (Photo: Tokyo Fried Chicken Co.)