Really, Really Good Fried Chicken
Where to Get the Bird That Will Make You Very, Very Happy
Some people say Seattle's mini-marts, grocery stores, and gas stations have the best fried chicken. Often mentioned: Howell Street Grocery, Union Market, the Red Apple on 23rd and Jackson, the Shell station at Corson and Michigan in Georgetown, Quick Pack Food Mart at the intersection of Jackson and MLK, the mini-mart near Orcas and Rainier.
Travel + Leisure magazine recently said that Seattle's best fried chicken—in fact, America's best fried chicken (among a dozen other places)—is to be found at upscale West Seattle restaurant Spring Hill. The catch: They only make it on Mondays. It also costs $20 per person, minimum four people, and is currently booked out six weeks in advance. Spring Hill's bird is very likely superlative, but six weeks is a long time to wait for fried chicken. Likewise, Ballard's Hi-Life and West Seattle's Heartland Cafe also have fried chicken dinners (for around $14 per person), but only on Sundays.
And there are those who swear by the national chains—the KFC in Ballard, Popeye's in Renton or Burlington, Church's in Federal Way.
Here we have set aside the quickie-marts, the grocery stores, the gas stations, and the certain-day-of-the-week-only fried chickens for another time. We have set aside the chains for never. We have also set aside the notion of "best." But all of this fried chicken is really, really good. EDITED BY BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
Five Seattle-area locations / www.ezellschicken.com
Does Ezell's make the best fried chicken in the world? As the framed autographed photo over the cash register testifies, Oprah sure thinks so (rumor has it that Ezell's regularly ships chicken and sweet potato pie directly to Ms. Winfrey's Chicago estate). If you're a total sissy, the original chicken—plump and juicy on the inside, crisp and not too oily on the outside—will change your life. But everyone knows the spicy is even better. The spice, which brings an appealing slight orange cast to the skin, doesn't burn. It's just enough of a kick to get your taste buds to sit up and take notice of the wonders they are about to receive.
The great mystery of Ezell's is that the quality of the food is uniformly spectacular. You can be assured that every time you visit Ezell's, you'll have as wonderful an experience as the last time. How do they find such perfect chickens? How is every piece as good as a piece of fried chicken possibly can be? Is cloning involved? How do you make mashed potatoes that are so smooth and creamy every time, but that obviously aren't reconstituted from a box? This quality for such a ridiculously low price—a two-piece plate with two sides is $6.95, and buckets start at just $15.65 for eight pieces—is the kind of value you only find in mythical 1950s Eisenhower-era America, where candy bars allegedly cost five cents and were the size of a swimming pool.
Ezell's knows you can't judge fried chicken without considering the sides. The coleslaw is just the right blend of cabbage and mayonnaise (with a dash of pepper for kick), and the sweet rolls—fluffy, cloudlike—will make you realize that you can have chicken without biscuits. (Only the potato salad disappoints; it's too much like cold mashed potatoes with mayo. A little more definition to the potatoes would make this as great as everything else.) And while the peach cobbler is amazing, you really can't eat Ezell's without also tucking away a slice of their crumbly, smooth sweet potato pie to consummate the experience. Oprah would want you to. PAUL CONSTANT
Ravenna / 2616 NE 55th St / 525-0220
Hey, you. Yeah! YOU. Chicken man over there. Fuck your secret recipe! What am I going to do—yoink your formula (hint: main ingredient is CHICKEN) and open my own competing fried chicken restaurant? Nope! Too lazy! Cook my own fried chicken at home? Too flammable! Trade your chicken recipe to North Korea for the release of sexy American lady-spies? I don't speak Korean, dummy! Frank's Oyster House & Champagne Parlor in Ravenna doesn't bother with any of that insecure, elitist bullcorn. Chef/co-owner Sarah Penn put that shit right on the internet:
We take free range chickens and break them down ourselves creating boneless pieces from the thighs and breast that still have skin on. Hold in buttermilk, dredge in flour/cayenne mixture and voilà! Without the bone it cooks nice and fast. Served with Yukon gold purée, gravy and biscuits with honey butter.
Voilà, indeed, whatever that means! (I told you I don't speak Korean.) Seated in a cute, roundy booth in Frank's front window, I receive a plate ($17.50) exactly as Penn described—adequate berm of yellow mashed potatoes (adequacy is all that mashed potatoes require); two perfect biscuits, fluffy in the extreme, with honey butter, honeyed in the extreme; and four baseball-sized chunks of crispy, juicy, salty, peppery, un-boney, cayenney, nonsecretive fried chicken. But ignore everything else: We are here to discuss these chicken chunks. The chicken is way tender and über-moist (thanks, our warm and efficient server told us, to the many hours spent lounging in buttermilk—three days' worth of hours), the skin retains just enough fat to make for some truly decadent bites, the crust is light and spicy, and grease is negligible.
This is some upper-crust chicken, to be sure, but what's so wrong with that? Must fried chicken only be enjoyed in a steamy shack or bird-soiled picnic shelter? Sometimes the moment is ripe for donning our fanciest pants and, in the company of loved ones (a newly released hostage, perhaps?), enjoying an elegant meal upon white linens. Sometimes we desire a glass of fine wine (sauvignon blanc!) with our crispy bird chunks. Frank's provides. LINDY WEST
Tacoma / 1716 Sixth Ave / 253-627-4282
Southern Kitchen is a little red building with a screen door. It's on a busy intersection in Tacoma, next to a Jiffy Lube, but it belongs on a country road with encroaching kudzu. You can smell the frying chicken out in the parking lot.
Inside, the tables are covered in floral oilcloth, and a wallpaper frieze repeats a flour canister, molasses jar, and measuring cup design all around the room. There's a shelf with some Aunt Jemima ceramics, and a counter with shiny stools, and a corner with flyers for Jesus Daycare (I hear he's really good with kids) and apartments for rent and an upcoming Too $hort show in Olympia. Framed photos of friends are all over the walls, plus some of staff looking very happy with a spikey-blond-haired guy—Guy Fieri of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, who was here to pay homage in 2009.
The menu says, "Prepare to experience southern cooking at its down-home best." The menu does not lie, and it would have been best to prepare with, say, a three-day fast. Look around: The average weight of patrons is approximately 185 pounds. Pace yourself.
Drinks come in mason jars. Fried chicken—two pieces (or four wings) for $11.95, or, if you would like to flirt with possible hospitalization, a half-bird for $14.95—comes with a corn cake (like a pancake, but cornier) and your choice of three down-home-best sides. The macaroni and cheese has been sitting around for a while, crumbling picnic-style, but it is still good. The mashed potatoes are uniformly, unimpeachably creamed. The black-eyed peas are on the firmer side, with a fresh, vegetal taste that, in context, is like a gigantic salad. Also: yams, rice, collards, corn, corn-bread dressing. And fried okra: Get it or you will regret it.
The chicken is remorselessly greasy. Mete out your napkin use with care; you are granted only one, and the absence of napkin dispensers on the tables bespeaks a paper-product parsimony that should be respected. Grease pools on the plate; grease coats your mouth and your hands. On some pieces of chicken, the hot grease in the skillet (which has to be giant and cast-iron) has eked in around the batter in places, crispifying the edges of the meat itself, making a sort of chicken-jerky.
While you're eating, an older black gentleman wearing a T-shirt with a marijuana leaf on it, walking with a cane, may make his way in and throw a spiral-bound notebook down on a table, claiming it as his own. The Mexican soccer team might score on the TV in the corner, and some of the guys in the kitchen might come out to watch the replay, cheering. Babies will squeal. Traffic will go by. The screen door will slam. This is profoundly American chicken in a profoundly American setting; as such, it is a pure joy. The brisket is really, really good, too. BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
Pike Place Market / 95 Pine St / 625-0129
You'd be forgiven for suspecting that Steelhead Diner wouldn't have great fried chicken. It is, after all, a slightly expensive place in the middle of Pike Place Market that reaches in opposite directions—it strives to be diner-casual enough for tourists in flip-flops and dignified enough for business types with wingtips and an expense account. (Case in point: Steelhead Diner, operated by Louisiana-born chef Kevin Davis, calls its po'boy a "Rich-Boy Sandwich.") This translates into $18 for a few pieces of fried chicken sitting in a shallow pool of gravy with a little cooked spinach.
But the chicken is pretty damn good in a classic Southern style. The breading is on the thick side (more crust than breading, probably involving some buttermilk), yet remarkably ungreasy. This is likely due to a hot 'n' fast frying method, which gets the chicken in and out before the breading has time to soak up too much oil. That's just speculation, but here's evidence: The breading is deep brown, as if it's been cooked at a very high temperature rather than simmered until golden; the meat is flawlessly tender and moist (even the white meat); and the chicken is hot, hot, HOT inside. It's much hotter than most chicken, with the outer crust sealing in both temperature and moisture content as the chicken makes its journey from the fryer to your gaping maw. And the bones are snappy, not mushy—easily gnashed apart to get at the dark, fibrous marrow within—another indication of a hot 'n' fast fry.
Add the heartening beer selection (pints of Pike Brewing, Ninkasi, other good stuff) and the endlessly friendly staff, and you've got an $18 plate of chicken worth ordering. The coleslaw is a little disappointing—too sweet, necessitating a generous shower of the hot pepper–infused vinegar sitting at your table. But all in all, Steelhead passes the test. BRENDAN KILEY
Ballard / 7034 15th Ave NW / 784-5701
When you ask for the fried chicken at the Waterwheel in Ballard—there might be table service, but save them a trip and order at the bar—they warn that it's going to take a half hour. Is that okay? Yes, it is. Someone on one of the black vinyl bar stools (the kind with backs on them to facilitate a more comfortable stay) is liable to volunteer, "The fried chicken is REALLY good." Yes, it is.
During that half hour, the chicken is breaded, receives haphazard swaths of dark but not-too-peppery spices, then is fried up golden just for you. This is a minor miracle: It seems probable that the culinary apex here would be frozen food-service jalapeño poppers. But the Waterwheel is a righteous roadhouse dive, with Carolina-style pulled pork sandwiches and ribs and brisket and fried chicken made from scratch, with rightful pride.
While you wait, you can step out and enjoy "Ballard's Largest Outdoor Drinking Playfield," a paradise of Astroturf, picnic tables, and ping- (or beer-) pong, open until the end of August, with a misting setup for hot days. Outdoor speakers play the Sex Pistols. Back inside, the soundtrack's the same (minus the music of four lanes of traffic), played at a level that allows conversation. There's wood-veneer paneling and a low ceiling; it is pleasantly dim, and the wall-to-wall carpet crawls up the sides of the central horseshoe bar. Under the pool table is a cardboard box labeled "ROCK BAND STUFF" and a translucent plastic bin full of Christmas decorations. Everyone knows everyone here; if you are not known, you are taken into the fold by the people next to you, by the lovely bartenders, maybe by a tiny, fuzzy black dog.
The chicken comes with sad cafeteria-style peas-and-carrots and decent mashed potatoes with bland white gravy, but sides of baked beans and coleslaw are excellent. The beans aren't too sweet, and they're soft without losing their individual integrity. The creamy factor of the slaw is cut with a very healthy dose of pepper—cayenne, if the red specks don't lie. All coleslaw should be like this.
The fried chicken has a restrained exterior, crispy and not too salty; it makes a thick layer of breading crunch seem like overkill. The dark meat glistens with slipperiness, and the white holds its juices valiantly. Nine dollars and ninety-five cents gets you an entire half-bird, an inhuman portion. Lunch tomorrow is going to be great. BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
Capitol Hill / 602 19th Ave E / 320-8757
The Kingfish's "My Way or the Highway Buttermilk Fried Chicken" is amazing—so long as you're in the right camp, fried-chicken-wise. There is the crispy-fried-shell-is-paramount camp, which can result in an armor of impressive structural integrity that turns out sadly to be holding the entire flavor; there is the crispiness-is-nice-but-not-as-important- as-moistness-and-flavor-all-the-way-through camp, to which the Kingfish's fried chicken (spicy, moist, not shatteringly crispy) belongs. Not only is the skin peppery and awesome, but the meat below it is peppery and spicy and juicy, too. The recipe is a secret, but a server did say that the pieces (you get a thigh, a breast, and a drumstick for $16.95) are fried in a pan and then also dunked in a deep fryer. They're served with a cool, subtle, not-too-mayo-y potato salad and a bitter, dark green pile of collard greens. It's an intensely satisfying plate of food.
The Kingfish has been a neighborhood fixture since 1997, and the two rooms are gorgeously done, with ruined-plaster walls, ceiling fans, copper pipes, and gigantic sepia photographs of the owners' ancestors—"From our great, great aunt Mary Laura Josephine, born a slave in 1850, to our third cousin, the poet Langston Hughes," the menu says. The place is always mobbed. But the Kingfish's service doesn't seem up to the task of dealing with the Kingfish's popularity. There were five empty tables when we walked in, and many, many people standing around hoping desperately to sit in them, but the hostess wasn't seating anyone—for quite a while she was busy running food to tables, apparently to make up for a lack of servers on the floor. We went into the bar to get a drink and stood there. Oh, how we stood. After more than 15 minutes, the bartender—overwhelmed or disgruntled or new, it was hard to say—asked what we wanted without looking at us, made a watery martini and a vodka soda with no lime, and shoved them our way. The Kingfish is known for always having a line, and after 13 years, it's still my way or the highway.
When our table was ready, the server (also overwhelmed) was apologetic, and then a manager came and told us she'd be buying our dessert. From there on out, we were set. We both got the chicken. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
Georgetown / 5613 Fourth Ave S / 762-3964
The Marco Polo Bar and Grill is located next to a Subway on a barren stretch in Georgetown. Here, fried chicken is cooked by "broasting," which must be a portmanteau for broiling and roasting but sounds like a fraternity hazing ritual.
On an early Wednesday night, Marco Polo's spacious saloon contains exactly three customers: a homeless man chuckling quietly to himself at the bar, my plus one, and myself. But we are not alone. We are in the company of one wall of pull-tabs, one indoor fire pit, 13 televisions, two pinball machines, two pool tables, and a full-sized race car. Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car" blares from the speakers, but we do not comply.
The server is friendly, in an unsmiling way. He asks, "What'll it be, boss?" like we are in a prison lunchroom. I order the "World Famous Broasted Chicken" ($8.95 for three pieces) and a basket of fried gizzards because they are, according to the menu, a local favorite. I ask the server what broasting involves. He says that the chicken is sealed into, then deep-fried within, a temperature- and pressure-controlled contraption, much like a submarine filled with boiling hot oil.
The fried gizzards arrive while the chicken, which is cooked to order, broasts. The gizzards have the glistening visual appeal of all fried food, but this appeal is lost upon the first bite. Fried gizzards are in fact a sort of brown, steroided calamari made for the jaws of giants. I pass the time chewing the same bite until the cook, sweating, arrives with our hot, broasted chicken. Broasting is meant to keep the juice in and the grease (mostly) out, and indeed, this is the juiciest, nongreasiest thigh, breast, and wing I've ever had. Out of the submarine's atmosphere, the chicken seeps its depressurized juices. It is lightly breaded and seasoned, so as not to distract from the delicate crispiness of the skin and the savory meat beneath it. I know I'm eating meat, but it's almost like I'm eating fruit. I realize then that Marco Polo has done the impossible: This is diet deep-fried chicken I'm eating. MATTHEW BATHAN
Central District / 2308 E Union St / 329-0836
You will not find the best fried chicken at Thompson's Point of View, but you will certainly find one of the best places to eat it. The chicken, which is offered either as standard or "hallelujah" (spicy) for the same price ($10), is good but not outstanding: It is the mood of the place that matters most. The people who hang out here are not part of the hiphop generation, but the soul generation and the 1980s R&B generation—meaning, the generation that still has roots in the South and the kinds of family and friendly feelings associated with that world. Maybe it is for this reason that the fried chicken is so basic. Even the spicy version is as plain as the kind of fried chicken you would expect from a kitchen in a home rather than a kitchen in a restaurant.
When I visit, the jukebox, which plays CDs (remember those?), is jamming a tune that is clearly meant for the ears of people who are now in the middle of their lives. The young want to hear about desire and love; middle-aged folks want to hear about the realities of dealing with property values and lawyers. The song is about a man who is divorcing a woman named Minnie May. They are in court, the love is long gone, and all that is left is to sort out who gets what. After listening to the arguments from both sides, the judge, Judge Paul, announces: "The bitch git it all." The singer, Marvin Sease, pleads: "She get the money in the bank. She get the house and the land... That's a mean ol' judge... that's my car... she's not gonna get my car. The judge didn't change a word: The bitch git it all... That's my dog, me and my dog been going fishing for many years." While at Thompson's, it's easy to imagine having this very conversation with a man like Marvin, while eating a plate of fried wings and licking oil from the tips of your fingers. That's one mean ol' judge. CHARLES MUDEDE